On February 5th, a district attorney in Oregon ordered a local government agency to unseal a collection of public records related to an economic development project.
The Malheur Enterprise, a local newspaper, had requested the documents last October as part of its ongoing investigation into a state legislator, Rep. Gregory Smith. In addition to serving as director of the Economic Development Department, Smith also owns a construction company that has done contract work for the government. The newspaper wanted to access a number of government records to see whether he was leveraging his official position to help his private business.
The Malheur County Economic Development Department took 85 days to respond to the newspaper’s request, and eventually produced records that were heavily redacted.
With the help of Reporters Committee Local Legal Initiative attorney Ellen Osoinach, the newspaper petitioned for unredacted records. Osoinach argued in the petition that the county had “made no showing that disclosure would harm the public interest.”
In his opinion, District Attorney David M. Goldthorpe wrote that the exemptions the agency cited did not apply in this case, and ordered the agency to disclose all the requested records without redactions.
The victory represents a sharp blow to Smith who has, in the past, tried to intimidate reporters with legal action. In August 2019, Smith claimed that reporters were “harassing” him and other government employees by calling them at odd hours. A county sheriff investigated the allegations but found “no basis” to pursue a criminal investigation.
August 19, 2019: Oregon Reporters Face Possible Criminal Investigation For Contacting Public Officials
After months reporting on a local politician’s contract work in Malheur County, journalists at a small newspaper in eastern Oregon now face a possible criminal investigation for their conduct.
According to The Washington Post, the Malheur County Sheriff is considering investigating the newspaper for harassment after a state legislator complained that reporters had repeatedly called and emailed him and other county employees during non-business hours.
“It is not appropriate that you are sending emails to employees using their personal email accounts on the weekends,” Rep. Smith told Malheur Enterprise. Rep. Smith asked that the newspaper use only a single county email address for future questions.
Oregon state does have laws restricting “telephonic harassment,” or “intentionally harass[ing] or annoy[ing] another person,” but applying them to journalists whose job requires them to call public officials raises First Amendment concerns. Among the problems are the law’s wording: both “harassing” and “annoying” are words that might be too vague to pass constitutional scrutiny.
Editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise, Les Zaitz finds the accusations leveled against his reporters to be unfounded.
“Our news staff has sought information from county officials concerning important public business using standard and professional methods,” Zaitz said. “Suggesting that professional journalists are behaving as criminals in gathering vital information for the community appears to be an effort to silence and intimidate the Enterprise.”
“It is fundamentally antithetical to freedom of the press in the United States, and this is more intimidation than anything that responsible government authorities [would do],” University of Oregon law professor Kyu Ho Youm said in an interview with The Washington Post. He added that the investigation into the Malheur Enterprise is part of an alarming national trend whereby government officials take “legally questionable action against reporters in the face of unfavorable coverage.”
As of Monday morning, Sheriff Brian E. Wolfe told the Malheur Enterprise he was still debating whether to investigate the newspaper.