Oregon’s journalists will soon have more legal muscle in accessing public records.
As part of its Local Legal Initiative, the Reporter’s Committee for the Freedom of the Press picked Oregon as one of five states to receive two years’ worth of free support in obtaining public records, or contesting denials of same.
The other designated states are Tennessee, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Pennsylvania.
Rachel Alexander is president of the Oregon Territory Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. She says this will help improve transparency for the state’s newsrooms.
“We heard from education reporters in the Lane County area who said the school districts they covered would just say, ‘Well…you can’t have those records, because we don’t think that story’s news,” or, “We don’t want to give them to you.’ Neither of those are reason under the law to withhold information.
"And that was for pretty basic things, like contracts with former superintendents or emails between school board members, things that are very, clearly public.”
Alexander says Washington State has lots of case law examples that have strengthened journalists’ access to official records. However…
“Oregon doesn’t really have any of that framework. So my hope is that we can start to build that base, give people a better idea about how to interpret the law. And also give agencies more reason to comply with it, by showing them there could be actual consequences if they don’t follow the text of the law.”
In a press release, the Oregon Territory SPJ Chapter adds:
"Our proposal focused on the need for attorneys to help enforce and strengthen Oregon’s public records law, particularly improper delays and records denials by elected officials. Under current Oregon law, any public records decision made by an elected official can only be appealed by filing a lawsuit, effectively preventing the public from holding its government accountable unless they can afford an attorney."
Among those supporting the initiative is Ginger McCall, who resigned as Oregon’s public records advocate last year.
The initiative follows a $10 million investment by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in 2019.
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