OSU's tangled web
Oregon government agencies' track record of complying with state public records laws has never been stellar, but Oregon State University's behavior toward a university employee trying to teach basic journalism to her students hits a new low.
Kate Willson, a student media adviser at OSU, filed public records requests with the university in October, seeking campus crime statistics and the university's employee compensation database. Both are clearly public records under state law.
Willson, a trained journalist, planned to use the records to teach student journalists about computer-assisted reporting.
After several delays by university officials, Willson was told it was "inappropriate" for university employees to request public records from their place of work. Oregon law clearly states any person has the right to request public records. Willson was told she could ask for the records as a private individual and then use them as a teaching tool, but could not make the request as a university employee.
After Willson noted that state law allows citizens to appeal denied requests to the local district attorney, OSU's general counsel, Meg Reeves, asked to meet with her and her supervisor. Reeves argued that, because OSU is not considered a "person" under the law, its employees are not persons either for the purposes of requesting public records. Not only that, but Willson says Reeves told her she was acting as her attorney and she shouldn't discuss the conversation because of attorney-client privilege.
It's hard to know the motivation for these contortions, but it is safe to say the university's attorney needs to brush up on Oregon's public records law, which was one of the first in the country to codify the right of citizens to see government documents.
A Portland media law attorney, asked by a reporter to comment on the situation, called Reeves' interpretation of the law "exceptionally narrow," and "an argument only a lawyer could love."
Newspapers, this one included, frequently file public records requests. Often, those requests meet with resistance when public officials don't want to release information. But Oregon law clearly states government records are presumed to be public unless specifically exempted from disclosure.
In Willson's case, it appears OSU is using its position as her employer to intimidate her into dropping her request.
A bit of advice for Reeves and other OSU officials: Attempting to stonewall a public records request makes a journalist wonder what the government entity is trying to hide, and why.
Willson wanted the records as a teaching tool. OSU officials may discover to their regret that they have given her an even better one.