Can Law Enforcement Run Background Checks on Speakers at Public Meetings?

By Michael Klazema on 11/12/2019

Businesses can benefit from running background checks on virtually anyone who they bring into their inner circle, from full-time employees and part-timers to volunteers to temporary workers, contractors, vendors, freelancers, and other gig economy workers. Landlords and property management companies may run background checks on prospective tenants. Schools and certain government facilities often extend background checks to visitors. In each of these cases, a background check is an important protection, whether against risk to personal safety, property damage, embezzlement or corporate malpractice, or liability. Background checks are an essential safeguard—but organizations still strive to maintain a balance between privacy and background checks. 

While some entities are restricted in their ability to run background checks—whether by ban the box legislation or laws that limit which information can show up on a background check—very rarely have laws made it illegal to use background checks for hiring, housing, or similar situations. With so many organizations using background checks, it’s easy to wonder whether these checks can go too far as an invasion of privacy. 

If you are looking for a textbook case of background checks going too far, look no further than the Chicago Police Department (CPD). In July 2019, it came to light that the CPD had been running secret background checks on members of the public who signed up to give comments at meetings of the Chicago Police Board. Police scoured lists of public speakers at board meetings and ran their names through department databases to look for arrest records, prison records, outstanding warrants, or sex offender registrations. In some cases, police even look at voter registration records and websites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or YouTube where speakers had profiles. 

Police compiled this data into profiles on each speaker, many of whom were openly critical of the CPD. One woman profiled by the CPD had alleged to the Police Board that she had been sexually assaulted by a CPD officer years previously. Others were relatives of individuals who had been killed in shootings involving CPD officers. Records compiled by the Chicago Tribune show that this practice dated back to 2006 and led to secret background checks of more than 300 citizens—all without the knowledge or consent of those individuals. 

While the practice wasn’t illegal, it impacted the public’s trust in the CPD and ignited a conversation about privacy and background checks. Shortly after the Tribune made details public, the CPD discontinued the background checks and issued a public apology. Several months later, Illinois State Representative Kambium Buckner proposed legislation that would make it illegal for law enforcement departments throughout the state to conduct background checks on citizens giving public comment at open meetings. The legislation would amend the Illinois Open Meetings Act to render such background checks a felony act. 

To fully understand the guidelines and ethical considerations that employers follow to balance privacy and background checks—such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act and guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission—visit the Learning Center.

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