Portland, Oregon-based reporter Beth Slovic never imagined that a simple request for public records would lead to a lengthy legal battle.
In November 2016, Slovic, who was working as a freelance journalist, asked Portland Public Schools to provide a list of employees who were currently on paid administrative leave. She often requested and received this type of information, but this particular request was summarily denied. A similar request by PPS parent and Oregon Board of Education member Kim Sordyl was also rejected.
Slovic’s intuition and journalistic experience told her this double-denial meant the school district was trying to cover something up. She and Sordyl filed a joint appeal to the Multnomah County District Attorney demanding the release of the records. The pair was subsequently sued by the school district for their request, but eventually did receive the list they asked for – and on October 5, 2018, Circuit Court Judge Judith Matarazzo ordered PPS to pay $200,000 in legal fees incurred by the defendants.
What Was PPS Hiding?
When Slovic and Sordyl got the requested record, they discovered that one teacher was currently on paid leave after he used “unnecessary and excessive force” to pin a special education student to the ground with his head.
This teacher also took a two-year paid leave after two women placed restraining orders on him, and had served some jail time for violating that order, as well as for domestic violence-assault and drunk driving.
This wasn’t the only cover-up attempt made by PPS: The Portland Tribune reported that during the same time period of this case, the school district also received backlash for being less than transparent about “toxins in school water, teacher-student sexual assault cases, and other controversies.”
The Oregon Public Records Law guarantees that “the public has access to public records of government bodies at all levels.” Under the law’s definition, a public record is any writing that contains information relating to the conduct of the public’s business, and is prepared, owned, used, or maintained by a public body. Slovic and Sordyl’s requested list fits this definition, and Jack Orchard, the attorney who represented the Portland Tribune, told the publication that “PPS’s conduct at that time was a particular disregard of the public records law.”
Why Public Records Law Matters
In a Poynter article on the topic, author David Beard wrote that this public records case “represents the struggle that reporters face in getting even basic information from the entities they cover.” Officials, he said, may try to “push the lines” of their legal obligation to release records if they don’t think the publication or freelance reporter has the funds to fight them. If PPS made this assumption about freelancer Slovic, it was incorrect, as became clear once the Portland Tribune provided her with much-needed legal help.
Slovic, who now also works as a journalism instructor, says she hopes her case will make public officials reconsider their decision to withhold public records.
“It’s in their interest to have these records public, to illuminate problems they need to address, like the stashing of people for months at a time on paid administrative time,” Slovic said in an interview with Poynter.
Slovic’s case also showed that having the appropriate access to public records can reveal important information relating to the safety of a community, particularly when an individual who works in a school setting has a history of violent and reckless behavior. If you have a strange feeling about anyone in your neighborhood, a public records search of their name could be a good first step to confirming or denying your suspicions so you can take further action if necessary.