|NMU||OREGON||Freedom of Information||Oct 27, 1999|
Internal labeling of documents will not determine release
- The presumption in favor of disclosure of records cannot be overcome simply by labeling records as personnel records subject to an open records exemption
Merely labeling a document a personnel record is insufficient to exempt it from disclosure under the public records law, the state Supreme Court in Salem ruled in early October. In determining whether a document is a personnel record, the court said, one must look to the content of the document, not its placement in a personnel file.
The case stems from a records dispute between the publisher of The (Portland) Oregonian newspaper and a local school district. In 1993, several school employees were suspected of stealing and misappropriating school property. An ensuing investigation — and accompanying report — led to the firing or retirement of four district employees.
The public records law, the court said, supports a long-standing presumption favoring broad disclosure of government records. Any exemption is to be applied narrowly and according to its plain meaning, the court said.
It disregarded the school district’s argument that a document’s placement in a personnel file or its labeling as a personnel record were sufficient to exempt it from disclosure. The court instead defined the exemption as being limited to records that involve individual employees and are kept in government files, not just any files that are labeled personnel records.
The court’s decision focused on the investigation report, saying because the report addressed the issue of theft by school employees generally and did not mention particular workers, their employment conditions or possible sanctions against them, it was not a personnel file. Labeling the report a “Personnel Investigation,” as the school district had done, was not sufficient to make the report a personnel record.
In fact, the court said, the report involved “a matter of paramount public concern” — not private employee records the exemption was intended to cover.
The newspaper sought, among other records, copies of the investigation report and a letter written by one of the employees announcing his retirement. The district denied the requests, claiming the documents were not subject to the open records law because they were personnel records.
The newspaper then filed suit in state court, but it took three lower court trials, six years and about $88,000 in school district legal fees before the state Supreme Court ruled that the purported personnel records were indeed public.
(Oregonian Publishing Co. v. Portland Sch. Dist. No. 1; Media Counsel: Charles Hinkle, Portland)
© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press