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Media adviser, Oregon State clash over records

Student media advisor requested public records on compensation and campus crime
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Kate Willson, an adviser to student media at Oregon State University, checks page views for the The Daily Barometer at the Java Stop in the Memorial Union over the holiday break. Willson filed public records requests with the university to gather data for student workshops on computer-assisted reporting. Now she’s afraid she could lose her job over it. Andy Cripe | Corvallis Gazette-Times
 Posted: 2:00 AM December 31, 2013

CORVALLIS — An Oregon State University student media adviser's public records requests have gotten her in trouble with the administration.

The Corvallis Gazette-Times reports Kate Willson filed two record requests on Oct. 18 for five years' worth of campus crime statistics and information about the university's compensation database. Willson planned to use the records as teaching tools to train student journalists in computer-assisted reporting.

But the school's administration says Willson acted out of line and had no legal right to request the records. Steve Clark, OSU's vice president for university relations and marketing, said it's inappropriate for employees of a public institution to request public records from their place of work.

In Oregon, any person has the right to inspect any public record unless it is expressly exempted from disclosure by law.

Clark said Willson was free to request public records held by OSU as a private citizen and that she could then use the data to teach students — she just couldn't ask for the records as a university employee.

He also said records requests should be filed by student journalists, not their adviser.

He insisted that OSU was not trying to muzzle Willson or to conceal information from the public.

"The point is quite simply who made the request and how did they make the request," Clark said.

The situation came to a head after Willson met with resistance to her requests, amended them several times, and met with more denials. Willson, 33, has a background in computer-assisted reporting and experience at several newspapers and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

After Willson pointed out that Oregon law allows members of the public to appeal denials of records requests to the county district attorney's office, OSU general counsel Meg Reeves asked to meet with her and her supervisor.

During the meeting, Willson says, Reeves told her that since OSU is not considered a person under the law, its employees do not qualify as persons for purposes of making public records requests.

Willson says Reeves told her she was her attorney and suggested she should not discuss their conversations because of attorney-client privilege.

"What it felt like," Willson told the Gazette-Times, "was an attempt to intimidate."

At another meeting, Willson says she was repeatedly pressed to admit that she had violated OSU policy and her employment contract by filing the public records requests — something she refused to do.

Steven Wilker, a media law attorney with the Portland law firm of Tonkon Torp, said Oregon State's position is an "exceptionally narrow" reading of the state's public records law.

"That's an argument only a lawyer could love," he said.

Wilker said he's also puzzled by Reeve's assertion that, by virtue of her position as the university's general counsel, she automatically has an attorney-client relationship with Willson, a university employee — or that Willson must not discuss their conversations.

"The nature of attorney-client privilege is it's a privilege of the client," he said, "and the client is free to waive that privilege."

The university says Willson has no reason to be worried about losing her job. Willdon says she's not worried about getting fired, but rather about her contract not getting renewed when it expires in June 2014.

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