Press "Enter" to skip to content

Chris Drew- An Activist Passes; His Work and Case Continue

Free speech didn’t die this week, but one of its defenders did. Chris Drew , street artist, photographer, teacher, advocate for free speech and public domain, died Monday, losing his fight with cancer. In court, it is a different story, according to one of his lawyers, Joshua Kutnick, who says they have a “very solid chance of winning.”

Chris Drew in his studio. Photo credit: Patrick Boylan

State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez prosecuted Drew on a felony eavesdropping charge that was  thrown out of court in March. At that time, the judge ruled that the Illinois eavesdropping statute criminalizes “wholly innocent behavior.” In other words, if you were recording a friend playing soccer at the park, and you inadvertently recorded the conversation of a couple sitting near you, your innocent act of recording your friend would be a crime simply because you  recorded the couple, too. State’s Attorney Alvarez chose to appeal the judge’s ruling and move forward with the felony charge.

Upon Drew’s death, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez can continue the appeal or file a motion to moot the case as the defendant is deceased. Whatever Alvarez chooses to do, Joshua Kutnick plans to continue with the case. If the State’s Attorney decides to drop the appeal, Kutnick can “assert a public interest exception to the mootness doctrine” to keep the case going. The legalese translates to this: if the issue in a moot case is likely to recur, then the case can be heard and a judgement made in the case. Chris Drew, a fighter to the end, urged his lawyer to continue with the case.

Bond is held to assure that a defendant shows up in court. Since Drew has died, the court will release his bond to his estate, which was a substantial amount of money.

Chris Drew originally set out to challenge the 1994 Peddler’s Law. Mayor Richard M. Daley aimed to clean up Chicago and favored  privatization, leasing and selling public assets to private corporations, as a way to clean up. It didn’t cost money, but it did sell off public rights to private entities and led to restrictions on where peddlers could display their wares. The Peddler’s Law  requires street artists to re-apply every month for a “free speech permit”  if their work includes words. It only permits selling at ten corners in the Loop, and Drew said that these are out of the way. Furthermore, the law says that  “…selling “anything containing words, printing or pictures that predominantly communicates a non-commercial message,”  is speech peddling, and requires that a “description of the item(s) he or she will be selling, including description of the type of item(s) to be sold, the nature of the communication, and a picture or graphic depicting the item(s) be submitted for approval to the City, according to the Columbia Chronicle.

Drew saw that as “prior restraint” and he repeatedly tried to get arrested for breaking the peddler’s law so he could question its legality in court.  He was arrested in December 2009 initially for peddling on State St. however, he had a small audio recorder in his pocket and recorded his own arrest. The peddling charge was dropped, but the State’s Attorney proceeded to charge him under the Illinois eavesdropping law which carries a possible 15 year prison term, and is a felony charge. That is the case that the judge threw out, and that is being appealed at this time.

In one of those ironies of real life, the ACLU announced that the U.S. Court of Appeals  reversed a recent trial court decision and ordered that the court enter a preliminary injunction enjoining States Attorney Anita Alvarez from prosecuting the ACLU and its employees for openly audio recording police officers performing their public duty under the Illinois eavesdropping law.  That case involves the ACLU who intend to monitor police behavior during the NATO summit.

The two cases involve the same eavesdropping law. In court, however the cases are regarded quite differently. The ACLU’s case applies to first amendment issues around recording the police when they are on duty. It relates only to recording police, not other officials nor private individuals. Chris Drew’s case involves due process; the issue in that ruling is that the law is so broad as to criminalize innocent behavior.

Chris Drew began exhibiting his work in St. Paul, Minnesota while teaching photo-art in the low income Summit-University community. After getting involved with the Inner-City Youth League (ICYL) he saw ways that artists could add value to an urban ethnic community. In 1987 he co-founded the Uptown Multi-Cultural Art Center and developed his “Art of the T-shirt” projects,  teaching screen printing to teens and making art in the form of t-shirts and patches for more than 20 years.

Last month Occupy Rogers Park honored Chris  by re-naming Morse Avenue “Chris Drew Way” according to Curtis Black in Newstips.

Chris Drew & Mark Weinberg- Newsbeat Interview
Chris Drew & Mark Weinberg- Newsbeat Interview (Photo credit: biverson)

Chris will be remembered by many Chicagoans who would see him with his art patches, and stop to chat at political protests, FCC hearings, and art fairs. He was tireless in speaking out about the issues that mattered to him — artists’ freedom and free speech. Chris’ lawyer, Joshua Kutnick said this case was one the favorite cases of his life because Chris was a true character.

“Chris was an inspiring person, and despite hardships, he never let his fire go out,” noted Kutnick. “He was a great activist leader. His real interest was peddler’s rights, but he stepped up and was a motivating force in the eavesdropping case.”




Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *