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Another government push for more secrecy

Sharing someone’s personal information with intent to harm them could soon get you sued in Oregon. A bill in the Oregon Legislature would permit a lawsuit for what’s commonly called doxxing.

The bill may help fill a gap in Oregon law. What’s worrying is a proposed amendment that would create more secrecy in Oregon government.

House Bill 3047 has more detail than we will summarize here. It ticks off a long list of things it defines as “personal information,” including address, email address, phone number, photographs of children, identification of children’s school and more. It says if a defendant with the intent to harass, injure or stalk knowingly discloses such information and knew the person didn’t want the information disclosed and a plaintiff was harassed, injured or stalked, a plaintiff can seek damages. You can read the bill yourself on the Legislature’s website.

One important thing to note: The bill does not specify the personal information disclosed is or is not already publicly available. So it may not matter if anyone could find the information if they went looking. What can matter is the intent of the disclosure and if the person was harassed, injured or stalked and if a reasonable person would have been, as well.

Let’s look at the amendment. Members of the public and journalists can get into battles with government agencies over public records. The proposed amendment aims to expand the list of things exempted from disclosure.

The Oregonian reported the “amendment was introduced on behalf of the League of Oregon Cities.” Scott Winkels, the organization’s lobbyist told that newspaper: “We were just trying to align the language to what a lot of people in the state had always felt like it meant.”

Part of the amendment may do that. It also would throw a shadow over much government activity.

Just one thing the amendment does is exempt from disclosure communications within a public body or between public bodies if “they cover other than purely factual materials and are preliminary to any final agency determination of policy or action.” The communications may still be released, but a member of the public might have to go to court to get them.

It’s easier to understand with an example. An Oregon Secretary of State audit found in January 2018 that Oregon’s Department of Human Services has been slow, indecisive and inadequate in fixing recurring problems with foster care. In April 2018, The Bulletin in Bend asked DHS what it was doing to make progress. When The Observer’s sister paper didn’t get a response, it made a public records request for DHS emails connected to our request.

It turned out DHS had written up a memo to answer the questions. The Bulletin only ever received the memo because of the public records request. Other emails the paper received showed the agency was more concerned with how the information might be seen than informing the public what it was doing. It wanted to hold off releasing anything and roll it into a media campaign.

That’s an example of how your state government works. Its priority can be controlling information, not informing the public. And under the amendment such as the one to House Bill 3047, we may never have received those emails.

The amendment doesn’t simply line up state law with what people think state law says. It’s also a move to suppress the people’s ability to understand how their government behaves behind the scenes.