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District denies request for commenters' IDs

Medford School District staff say they will not identify people who sent e-mails and written comments on the district's controversial new health curriculum ' not even to school board members.

The district claims the names are personal information and releasing them could have a chilling effect on dialogue between the community and the district.

But Jack Orchard, attorney for the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, said public comments to a public body on general policy are public record.

This is no different than showing up at a meeting and speaking out, said Orchard, who advises Oregon newspapers on public records law. It's a very difficult stretch to say that these kinds of comments aren't public.

Anyone should be able to look and see who's influencing their elected officials.

— In updating its health curriculum for the first time in more than a decade, the district sought comment from the community. It posted the proposed curriculum online, so people could read it and send their thoughts electronically. The biggest ' and most controversial ' change was a plan to introduce contraception in the eighth grade.

That lesson on contraceptives prompted concerns from Applegate Christian Fellowship pastor Peter-John Courson and his congregation, as well as others. Courson spoke out against the plan at a school board meeting and from the pulpit, then encouraged his congregation to sign a petition against it.

The district has reported tallies of how many comments it has received in favor and against the health curriculum, but when the asked for copies of all comments, including names and e-mail addresses, it refused to release the names and addresses.

We believe the names and addresses are personal information and releasing them would be an unreasonable invasion of privacy, said Tim Gerking, the school district's attorney.

The school board asks people commenting at its meetings to provide their names and addresses and tell whether they live in the district or have children attending Medford schools and if they represent an organization.

When you show up, you expect the press to be there, Gerking said. If you comment in an e-mail or letter to the administration, that might be viewed as confidential.

Such protection is particularly important on an issue as politically and religiously sensitive as sex education, he said. It might matter less on other topics, so releasing names of people who make comments should be decided separately on each issue.

Editor Bob Hunter said public comments on public policy issues are clearly public records, no matter how touchy the subject.

It's not the kind of thing that when it's uncomfortable for you, you can make it not public, he said. It's not up to the agency.

The newspaper's general philosophy is to press for openness in all public processes to increase people's understanding of government agencies, Hunter said.

The paper has asked Jackson County District Attorney Mark Huddleston to rule on whether names and e-mail addresses ought to be released with the comments as public records. He expects to issue his opinion early next week.

The board will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday at South Medford High School to review the comments and vote on the proposed health curriculum.

Board member Peggy Penland, who has served for nearly a dozen years, said the board typically has received the names of people who addressed comments to the board, but wouldn't necessarily get names if the comments were sent to the superintendent or other district administrator. Curriculum Director Todd Bloomquist received and compiled all comments on the health curriculum.

Penland said it generally isn't important to her to know who made the comments. Such information is only meaningful if she knows the people and their characters or agendas.

Board member Mike Moran, who has served since 2000, said he weighs input from all district patrons equally, but he would like to know whose concerns he's hearing.

I do need to know at some point, he said. I want to know where the comments are coming from so I can process them in context.

Still, Moran said he understood the district's desire to protect individuals' privacy.

This is different than many topics we get and it's so important that we get the input, he said. We don't want to stifle that in any way.

The district previously has provided complete e-mails, including names and addresses, sent to administrators. Most recently Superintendent Phil Long provided a string of correspondences he had in September with Waldorf school organizers who want to present a charter school proposal to the district.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail District denies request for commenters? IDs"aburke@mailtribune.com.