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Oregon newspaper sues school board for discrimination complaints filed against board members

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  1. Local Legal Initiative
This is the first lawsuit filed by RCFP attorneys as part of the Local Legal Initiative in Oregon.
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Update: 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. However, the board still refuses to make public the full reports of investigations into the complaints.

On behalf of the Malheur Enterprise, a local newspaper in Oregon, Reporters Committee attorneys are suing a local school board for refusing to release records that would shed light on discrimination allegations against several of its directors and how the board handled them.

The lawsuit is the first to be filed as part of the Reporters Committee Local Legal Initiative in Oregon, which launched last August.

Filed on June 23 in Malheur County Circuit Court, the lawsuit stems from the rejection of three Oregon Open Records Law requests that the Malheur Enterprise submitted to the Ontario School Board in April and May. The requests concern discrimination allegations made by the superintendent and two school principals against three directors of the school board, which oversees the Ontario School District.

In an effort to help the public better understand details of the allegations, as well as the district’s response, the newspaper specifically sought any complaints filed against board members in the last year; communications between the board and the district’s superintendent about an April school board meeting; and reports created as a result of the board’s investigations into the complaints.

While the school board censured two directors during an April meeting for their misconduct toward the superintendent, it did not release any information about the complaints or its investigations. Nor did the board release information after it censured one of the same directors again the following month — this time for his misconduct toward a school principal.

Reporters Committee attorneys argue that the records responsive to all three of the Malheur Enterprise’s requests are being unlawfully withheld and that none of the exemptions cited by the board in rejecting them applies. By failing to disclose the requested records, the lawsuit argues, the Ontario School Board is violating its duties under the Oregon Open Records Law.

“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. We urge the court to order the Ontario School Board to promptly disclose the requested records at no cost to the newspaper.”

Reporters Committee attorneys previously represented the Malheur Enterprise in an administrative appeal in February, helping the paper obtain records about a major economic development project in the county. The Enterprise used the records in an investigation highlighting how county officials convinced the state to release $25 million in funds for the project on the pretense that vital, unfinalized deals were already official.

The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.