By editorial board • 

Say no to litigation that tramples the little guy

For almost 50 years, records compiled or acquired by a public agency in this state — any type of agency at any level, from a lowly cemetery district to the Oregon Supreme Court — have been open for inspection unless expressly exempted.

But during that same span, ever since the Watergate scandal drove adoption of a tidal wave of state records laws, agencies have been resisting. And the more damning the records at issue, the more fiercely they tend to fight.

Two such cases are currently unfolding in Oregon, on eerily parallel tracks.

One focuses on Psychiatric Security Review Board records supporting release of a patient who proceeded to murder his ex-wife, then lead police on a high speed chase which claimed the life of an innocent father of five. The other entails Portland School District records identifying employees remaining on paid administrative leave for up to three full years without resolution of their cases.

The attorney general ordered release of review board records to Les Zaitz, publisher of the Malheur Enterprise weekly in Vale. Meanwhile, the Multnomah County district attorney ordered release of the school records to freelance reporter Beth Slovic and citizen activist Kim Sordyl. And rightly so, as both sets promise to expose particularly egregious governmental malpractice.

But a quirk in Oregon law allows agencies to challenge such orders by dragging the petitioners into court. And requesters like Zaitz, Slovic and Sordyl must have seemed like easy marks, based on lack of resources to support protracted litigation with government goliaths on the taxpayer dole.

Fortunately, both Zaitz, one of the most heralded investigative reporters of his time, and Slovic, who earned investigative credentials of her own with Willamette Week and The Oregonian, have friends in the right places.

In the review board case, which quickly triggered high-profile features in The Oregonian and Seattle Times, two shoes dropped in quick succession. First, celebrated First Amendment specialist Duane Bosworth of Davis Wright Tremaine agreed to represent Zaitz for whatever he could raise. Then, Gov. Kate Brown made that unnecessary by ordering the board to drop its unseemly challenge, which would have required costly private counsel because the state’s law firm had already ruled the other way.

The Oregonian has already slapped the school board around editorially for suing Slovic, and Bosworth now has his calendar free. So it’s safe to predict a similar outcome here.

But what if ordinary citizens like Sordyl had to face this sort of challenge on their own? There would be nothing preventing big government from using its superior might to conceal acts of gross malfeasance.

We should not have to depend on the crusading spirit and moral outrage of people like Bosworth and Brown for right to prevail. With rare and narrowly crafted exceptions, all records coming into public hands in Oregon ought to be open to public scrutiny.

We urge the Legislature to close the door on litigation targeting citizens for nothing more than lodging a good-faith request for a public record. That action offends the conscience.

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