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Illinois Township Sought Takedown of Watchdog Group’s YouTube Video

February 26, 2019

An attorney for Algonquin Township, Illinois, sent a letter to YouTube in March 2018 demanding that a video posted by Edgar County Watchdogs, a government watchdog group, be removed from the video-sharing site.

The fifteen-minute video, posted to YouTube on Jan. 15, 2018, shows Karen Lukasik, the Algonquin Township clerk and custodian of public records, inside the Algonquin Township Supervisor’s Office, where she rummages through files and documents, taking photos of some of them with her phone. Another woman in the video, Jennifer Curtiss, a trustee with the Village of Fox River Grove, asks the clerk, “Karen, do you have the authority to be going through this stuff?” prompting Lukasik to respond, “I can do whatever I want.”

The video was filmed on a Nest camera hidden in a bookshelf in the Township Supervisor’s Office and shared via a flash drive mailed anonymously to the Edgar County Watchdogs, a blog that posts responses to Freedom of Information Act requests filed with various government bodies around the state of Illinois.

The attorney for Algonquin Township, James Kelly, claimed the video violated “court orders” and “certain privacy rights” in his letter to YouTube dated March 16, 2018. “The video was unlawfully removed from the Township and turned over to a third party. This video may violate the individuals [sic] privacy rights,” Kelly wrote.

Kelly provided YouTube with two protective orders a judge signed in Gasser v. Lukasik, a separate lawsuit involving the township clerk, in June and November of 2017. The court orders appointed a receiver to recover video camera footage and copy machine hard drives from the Algonquin Township building, and barred distribution of that material beyond the attorneys and parties to the lawsuit.

“This is clearly attempted censorship,” John Kraft, one of the co-founders of Edgar County Watchdogs, wrote in a blog post. “We were not party to the lawsuit that dealt with sealing these documents,” Kraft told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. Kraft also maintained that the order did not prevent the video footage from being disclosed under Illinois public records laws.

The video is still on YouTube as of press time.

When the media lawfully obtains information that is truthful and newsworthy, it has the right to publish that information absent extraordinary circumstances,” Sarah Matthews, a staff attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. (Full disclosure: Matthews is on the steering committee for the Tracker.)

Kraft said he found out about the letter sent to YouTube demanding the removal of the video via a tip and then by reviewing Kelly’s legal bills submitted to the township. Those bills also indicated YouTube had sent a letter in response to Kelly’s takedown request. Kraft said he submitted public records requests for YouTube’s response to Kelly but has not received it.

Edgar County Watchdogs is currently suing Algonquin Township for not producing documents in response to 16 different FOIA requests.

Multiple requests for comment—and a request to review YouTube’s reply to the takedown request—sent to Kelly and Lukasik were not answered.

— The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].

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