Recording Phone Calls, Conversations, Meetings and Hearings

Using a recording device, such as a microphone, video recorder, or camera, is often a helpful way to capture and preserve information about conversations, interviews, and phone calls in which you participate. It is also a good way to document what takes place in a court hearing or public meeting, whether for personal reference or later broadcast over the Internet.

Where you do your recording, and what you record, will largely dictate what legal limitations apply to your recording activities. It may also be the case (in fact, it is quite likely) that more than one set of laws or limitations might apply to your use of recording equipment. Before concluding that your activities are in the clear, you should read all of the sections listed below that might apply, as well as the section on Gathering Private Information elsewhere in this guide.

If you plan to record the conversations of others, whether they occur in person or over the telephone, you should review the section on Recording Phone Calls and Conversations. This section discusses federal and state wiretapping statutes that make it a crime to record telephone calls and private conversations in many circumstances. Keep in mind that conduct that could lead to criminal and civil liability under federal and state wiretapping statutes could also lead to possible liability for intrusion. Please refer to the state-specific sections of this guide to get a more in-depth overview of the wiretapping laws in the fifteen most populous U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

If you plan to record the activities of the police or other public officials, First Amendment considerations might override state laws that prohibit recording without consent. See the section on Recording Police Officers and Public Officials for more information.

If you plan to use a recording device at a public meeting or court hearing, you should review the section on Recording Public Meetings and Court Hearings, which looks at the laws affecting your ability to make sound and video recordings and to take photographs in these quasi-public settings. Because laws vary greatly state-by-state, be sure to consult the state-specific sections of this guide for detailed information on the laws regarding use of recording devices at court hearings and public meetings. For more information on your general right to be present at court hearings and public meetings, please see the Access to Government Information section of this guide.

If you plan to take photographs, video, or audio of people engaged in private activities in places where they reasonably expect to be private, you should also read the section on Gathering Private Information in this guide. Various privacy laws could subject you to liability in this context, so you should proceed with caution if you will be recording private activities.

Once you've reviewed the other sections and are prepared to proceed, you should carefully review the section on Practical Tips for Recording Phone Calls, Conversations, Meetings, and Hearings. This section provides some practical guidelines for using recording devices, which should help you steer clear of legal trouble.

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