Case Number: 21CV25675
Court: Malheur County Circuit Court
Client: Malheur Enterprise
Complaint Filed: June 23, 2021
Background: In March and April 2021, the Ontario School Board in Malheur County, Oregon, received discrimination allegations from the superintendent and two principals against three directors of the school board. The board investigated each complaint and created reports of its findings, but did not make them public.
A reporter for the Malheur Enterprise, a local newspaper, submitted three Oregon Open Records Law requests to the board for records relating to the discrimination allegations and the district’s response. The requests sought records of any complaints filed about the board in the last year; any communications between the board and the superintendent about an April school board meeting; and reports created as a result of the board’s investigations into the complaints.
The board denied the three requests, arguing that the records responsive to each one were exempt from being disclosed because releasing them would, among other things, violate personal privacy and attorney-client privilege.
Despite having censured two directors at a public school board meeting in April for their misconduct toward the superintendent, the board did not publicly release any information about the investigations or how it handled them. It also did not release any information when the board censured one of the same directors again the following month for misconduct toward a school principal.
On behalf of the Malheur Enterprise, Reporters Committee attorneys sued the Ontario School Board for unlawfully withholding the records. The lawsuit argues that none of the board’s cited exemptions applies, and that the board violated its duties under the Oregon Open Records Law by withholding the records.
The lawsuit urges the Malheur County Circuit Court to order the board to produce the records responsive to each of the three requests at no cost to the newspaper.
Quote: “The public has a right to know details about misconduct allegations that led the Ontario School Board to censure several board members for violating its nondiscrimination policy,” Ellen Osoinach, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney in Oregon, told the Malheur Enterprise. “The school board’s refusal to hand over the records requested by the Malheur Enterprise not only violates the state’s public records law, it also deprives the public of important information about elected officials’ documented abuses of power.”
Updates: On Nov. 10, 2021, the Malheur Enterprise reported that the Ontario School Board released the complaints filed against the two school board members, as well as letters summarizing the findings of the board’s investigations of the board members. The board later released the full investigations and on Jan. 20, 2022, the Malheur Enterprise published an article on the findings of the reports. On June 6, 2022, RCFP attorneys dismissed the lawsuit on behalf of the newspaper.