The Woodburn Independent, a weekly newspaper in a community about the size of Redmond near Salem, scored a victory in the Oregon Court of Appeals Thursday. The paper sought arrest records from city police, and after the request was denied, lost both in the district attorney’s office and Marion County Circuit Court. Wrong, said the appeals court.
A reporter sought the records after the paper learned a former Woodburn man was arrested for child abuse in 2017. Surely, there is an argument that the public has a right to know what happened. The city of Salem turned the reporter down, arguing that specific Oregon laws required that it do so. The paper, owned by the Pamplin Media Group, took the case to the Marion County Circuit Court, which agreed with the district attorney. That court said, “any report, any report of arrest, any kind of report related to” child abuse is protected from disclosure. The paper appealed to the state Court of Appeals.
That court said, in effect, “piffle.”
The law the city cited does not, in fact, bar release of all records collected or created during a child abuse investigation. The city also contended that it does not have “arrest records,” a semantic sleight of hand that the court saw through. Its lawyers did admit it has police and incident reports, which is what the reporter sought in the first place. Again, the appeals court rejected the city’s argument. It told the circuit court to grant the paper’s request for an order that the city produce the records, edited to exclude evidence the paper said went beyond its records request.
Oregon laws say the public has a right to know what its police agencies are doing. Police cannot hide behind overly broad definitions of the law and narrow definitions of language to make it otherwise.