Oregon State Strangely Stonewalls Student Media Adviser’s Records Request

Happy New Year! My nomination for the first college media hashtag of 2014: #OSUstonewall. According to numerous reports, officials at Oregon State University have been repeatedly rebuffing a student media adviser’s public records requests with increasingly cringeworthy rationales and related behavior.

Alluding to OSU’s official color, the Corvallis Gazette-Times calls the whole shebang the “Orange Hush.

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The 90-second gist of this hush: Veteran journalist Kate Willson is currently the editorial content coordinator for student media at OSU. She is interested in leading a workshop for OSU j-students on computer-assisted reporting. She wants real data for the workshop that will also be relevant to student attendees. So she reached out this past fall to OSU admins, requesting campus crime stats and university staff pay info.

The university’s response: Umm, yeah, not so much. First, the school says Willson is not legally allowed to make public records requests from her own employer. OSU’s general counsel: “Kate Willson, private person, may inspect public records in response to a request. Kate Willson, OSU employee, may not.” (Cue giggle-eye-roll-sigh-head-shake.)

A media lawyer in Portland agrees with my reaction: “That’s an argument only a lawyer could love. I don’t think it comports with the purpose of the rule, I don’t think it comports with the spirit of the rule, I don’t think it comports with the language of the rule.”

The Bend Bulletin boasts similarly: “If Oregon law is quirky enough to allow the school to deny her request, because as a public employee she is somehow also a public official, as the university claims, the law should be changed.”

Second, the school says, in so many words, that Willson was hired to advise journalism, not practice it, and her requests fall into the latter category. (So OSU science professors also better stop mixing things in the labs and sociology profs better not carry out sample fieldwork as examples to show their students! Bottom line, sometimes teaching journalism requires DOING journalism, God forbid.)

College Media Association president Rachele Kanigel: “It’s important that we not do the job of student reporters or editors. However, I think it’s equally important that we be good role models and show students how to do good, aggressive journalism.”

Third, the school has told Willson she must remain silent about all meetings and email convos with the university’s legal team due to attorney-client privilege. (This assertion is so legally backward it actually makes me feel pity toward OSU. New hashtag: #OSUcluelessaboutlaw101. For those keeping score at home, the legal team is not HER lawyer. It represents the university. And Willson is the CLIENT, meaning she can talk as much as she wants. It’s the legal team that needs to stay quiet.)

Once more, the Portland media lawyer guy: “The nature of attorney-client privilege is it’s a privilege of the client and the client is free to waive that privilege.”

Privileges aside, is all this posturing and legally questionable runarounds due to Willson’s requests or the info she’s requesting?

Student Press Law Center executive director Frank LoMonte: “About four or five times a year, we get a call from an adviser who has been fired or is about to be fired because his students are getting uncomfortably close to a story someone doesn’t want to see published. It’s a real white-knuckle position.”

White knuckles. Orange Hush. #OSUstonewall

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