Does a public records suit always conform to a good guy vs. bad guy narrative? Is the requester always the hero, and the public entity is always the villain?
Of course, it’s not that black and white.
Public records laws were created to support government transparency and enshrine noble causes of democracy.
But the flip side of that is: many government institution records are open to the public, to be requested, received, seen, and used by anybody… for most any reason.
PETA recently received $400 in penalties for delayed records from Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU).
OHSU had conducted research on the effects of imbibing alcohol on male and female vole partners. Alcohol consumption does not appear to hurt voles.
PETA requested documents related to the research report.
After some delay, they sued, asserting that OHSU was violating Oregon Public Records law.
The courts did find that the request basically took longer than is reasonable by Oregon Public Records law, so OHSU was fined $400 for this misstep.
However, they would not uphold claims that OHSU purposefully withheld or discriminated in its delivery of records, which is why the fine was minimal.
Nevertheless, on PETA’s website, OHSU was labeled a violator of public records law – an overstatement compared to the actual ruling.
Some speculate that this was to build a case against any public institution engaged in animal research. So the public records suit may have served the purpose of “bad press” for OHSU and animal research in general.
Obviously, this is not the intention of public records access laws. But it can be difficult to mete out the ulterior motives of public records lawsuits and the institutions that field them.
While it’s unfortunate that taxpayer dollars go to fund these cases, it may be a price that we have to pay for consistent public records access.
I represent news media, bloggers, publishers, and citizens interested in government access, and others who operate under the First Amendment—public records; public meetings; newsgathering; avoiding defamation lawsuits; suing Anti-SLAPP violators. My job is to help you get the records and access you need, help you get the story, help you get the story without getting arrested, help get the story published without defaming anyone, and then defend the story after publication.
If you need help with any of these areas and don’t have an attorney already, contact me: [email protected]. This post is not intended to be legal advice and does not form the basis of a lawyer-client relationship.