Oregon State adviser: OSU tried to intimidate me into dropping public records request

An Oregon State University student media advisor is claiming that the school tried to intimidate her into giving up a public records request.

Kate Willson, a journalist who advises the OSU student newspaper as well as the school’s radio and television stations, planned to use real-world data when teaching a workshop on computer-assisted reporting this past fall. She decided to use five years of actual crime statistics from the school, as well as employee compensation information.

The person in charge of the crime statistics told Willson she needed to make a formal public records request with OSU’s Office of General Counsel. She did so on October 18, filing two records requests: one for the crime statistics and another for info on the employee compensation database, including documentation that would help her understand payment records she planned on asking for later.

The first request didn’t prove to be much of a problem. However, as reported by the Corvallis Gazette-Times, the second request led to a string of meetings with university officials and pressure to drop the inquiry.

At first, the paralegal she filed the request with told Willson that info on the structure of the compensation database was exempt from the Oregon Public Records Law. Willson amended her request multiple times and continued to communicate with the paralegal, noting in an email on Oct. 31 that state law allowed her to appeal a denied public records request to the District Attorney in the county.

It was at this point that the school’s General Counsel, Meg Reeves, asked to meet with Willson and her supervisor, Student Media Director Julia Sandidge.

According to Willson, Reeves told her during the Nov. 5 meeting that she had no legal right to request the records. Reeves argued that Oregon State University was not considered a person under the law and, as such, university employees don’t qualify as persons when it came to filing public records requests. According to Willson, Reeves also stopped midsentence at one point and announced that she was a client and, as such, they had a privileged attorney-client relationship. Email messages from Reeves also contained a request to not redistribute them or disclose their contents “without authorization from the OSU Office of the General Counsel.”

The day after the meeting, Willson received an email from Sandidge reminding her that she had been hired to “perform as an educator, not as a journalist.” Attached to the email was a copy of the College Media Association code of ethics, which states that advisers “must remain aware of their obligation to defend and teach without censoring, editing, directing or producing.”

Willson responded by emailing the two women for clarification and filing an amended public records request as a freelance reporter.

That resulted in another meeting with Sandidge and OSU’s associate director of human resources, during which Willson wasn’t allowed to take notes or record their conversation. Willson claims that her boss and the associate director tried to get her to admit that she violated school policy and her employment contract by filing the records request. She refused.

Willson says she was never explicitly threatened with the loss of her job, a year-long contract at $48,000 which expires in June 2014, but interpreted the meeting as an implicit threat. She says she expects the school to honor the remainder of her contract but doesn’t think they’ll hire her after it runs its course.

Steve Clark, OSU vice president for University Relations and Marketing, told the Corvallis Gazette-Times that Willson has no reason to fear for her job and that OSU was only trying to follow the law.

“It’s not appropriate, according to the law, for an employee [of a public institution] to request public records from their place of work,” Clark said, noting that Willson could make the request as a private citizen.

Clark also defended Sandidge and Reeves, stating the former was within her rights as a manager and the latter appropriately invoked attorney-client privilege.

Via Corvallis Gazette-Times.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter @SterlingCBeard