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Article updated: 2/24/2013 7:30 AM

Geneva schools' suit against ex-principal dismissed

Eavesdropping state law ruled unconstitutional

By Susan Sarkauskas

A Kane County judge has dismissed an eavesdropping lawsuit against a former Geneva school principal, saying the Illinois law on eavesdropping is unconstitutional.

Circuit Judge David Akemann ruled last week in favor of Margaret Pennington. He said the Illinois law was unconstitutional because it criminalized "wholly innocent conduct." The law, he said, doesn't include an element of criminal intent, even though it speaks about a person "knowingly and intentionally" recording the conversation of another person without his or her permission.

In his opinion, Akemann wrote that, for example, a person recording a child's baseball game could also inadvertently record conversations in the background. The way the law is written, he said, that person could be accused of a crime. A Cook County judge in May 2012 also ruled the law unconstitutional.

In 2011, the Geneva school district sued Pennington, saying she had illegally recorded conversations with her supervisors and other staff members without their permission.

The district asked the court to order Pennington to destroy any copies of the recordings she had or turn them over to the district. It also sought damages for the two supervisors, Dawn George and Patricia O'Neal. O'Neal and George had expressly refused requests by Pennington to record conversations. In another instance, Pennington was accused of surreptitiously recording a conversation.

Pennington was principal at Heartland Elementary School in the 2008-09 school year. District officials failed to notify her on time that they were not renewing her contract, so they moved her to a central office administrative position the next school year. They did not renew that contract.

Pennington argued that the school district offices are public places, that public business was being conducted and that the public has a right to record public officials doing public business. The district said its offices "are not public places or forums where the public is free to disrupt the work of the government," and that what was said between the supervisors and Pennington was not "speech or conduct of public concern" and so not subject to the First Amendment.

Pennington has also sued the school district in federal court, claiming she was discriminated against because of her age and her gender. She contends that younger, male principals hired at the same time as her with less experience were paid more, and that the district denied her health insurance, among other claims. She was 50 when hired.

The district, in turn, has asked her previous employers, the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora and Prairie Crossing Charter School in Grayslake, for her personnel files, looking for information to rebut her claim that she was underpaid given her 27 years of experience and past work performance and to bolster its argument that she refused insurance coverage because she was insured through her husband's insurance coverage.

According to a motion it filed, the district says Pennington has submitted a letter stating she should have been paid another $120,000 per year, given her credentials and experience. When she was hired, she was paid a base salary of $92,500.

She has also worked for the Illinois State Board of Education and is listed as a faculty member for online professional development courses at The Center for Learning, an Ohio-based nonprofit publisher of materials for teachers.

The district's lawyer, James Petrungaro, declined to comment on the ruling, other than to say he did not know if the district will appeal it.

Pennington could not be reached for comment.

The next hearing in federal court is Monday.

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