The Malheur Enterprise is a small, family-run weekly newspaper serving Malheur County Oregon. Malheur County is the poorest county in Oregon according to U.S. Census results, with 21 percent of its residents living in poverty. The county isn’t even in the same timezone as the rest of the state.
Earlier this year, the Enterprise filed an open records request to the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board regarding 15 unreleased documents relating to Anthony W. Montwheeler, an accused murderer whom the board said had been faking a mental illness to avoid prison for kidnapping his wife and son in 1996. Montwheeler was released from the board’s jurisdiction. In January, he was arrested for kidnapping and stabbing his ex-wife before causing a car accident that killed his ex-wife, David Bates and injuring Bates’ wife, Jessica.
The Enterprise, like most newspapers, is interested in holding government accountable, and when a body of the government releases a psychiatric patient who then commits a horrible crime, it sets off alarm bells for journalists. The Psychiatric Security Review Board declined the records request, and the Enterprise appealed to the state attorney general, who sided with the paper.
In response, the board filed a lawsuit against the newspaper. Now, remember, this is a small, family run newspaper in one of Oregon’s poorest county’s. The board represents the state. To boil it down further, the press in its role as an advocate for the people, asked for government records and the government sued an entity that is protected specifically by the first amendment.
As the saying goes, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel,” and in this situation, those words couldn’t be more true. The funny thing about freedom of the press is, no matter how powerful and overbearing a body of government may become — and no matter how small the news organization — the mechanism of printing and delivering or broadcasting information directly to the public can drastically shift the balance of the power back to the public interest.
The Malheur Enterprise may be small, but it doesn’t operate in a vacuum. In the world of journalism, a threat against one news organization is a threat against all news organizations. Once the Enterprize published a story about the lawsuit, with a plea to donate to the cause of defending the paper against the lawsuit, other newspapers picked it up. Most notably, a story about the Enterprize and its plight ran in The Seattle Times. That article made the rounds through the Internet and the Times’ syndication service and suddenly the residents of a county in Oregon that most people in the United States have never heard of had allies accross the nation.
That’s when Oregon Gov. Kate Brown stepped in. She basically told the Psychiatric Security Review Board to stop its shenanigans and comply with the previously issued order of the attorney general. The second paragraph of her public statement on the matter is pure gold, especially coming from a government official.
“Oregonians deserve a government that is transparent to the fullest extent permitted by law. No one requesting public records should be at risk of being sued by a state agency. I believe the public is best served by bringing this matter to an end now, rather than after a lengthy and costly litigation.”
Brown also said she intended to look into reforms that would keep incidents like this from happening again.
“An agency that has legal concerns about an Attorney General’s Order is currently forced under state law to sue the requestor. This plain wrong. I have directed my staff to explore solutions that would provide for swift judicial resolution without filing a lawsuit against a requester.”
At least for today, a small weekly newspaper in Malheur County Oregon kept residents of the state safe from government over-reach. But this isn’t a story about Malheur County Oregon. This is a story that plays out in some form or fashion in all 50 states. Every day, journalists at newspapers small and large try to get information out of local, state and national governments. At practically every turn, someone tries to stop, spin, control or water down that information. Sometimes, like in Oregon, it gets nasty.
You don’t always hear it from us as journalists. We don’t always write about what it took to get the information we publish. We don’t think readers would be interested in that sort of insider baseball, and we don’t want to come across as whiney. In most cases, we get the information without being sued by the government, but this sort of struggle — this fight for information that should be public — is just another day at the office for most journalists.
You think your local government hassles you when you go to the DMV or have a problem with your water bill? Try getting them to release information about spending at the DMV or corruption in the water department. The folks at The Malheur Enterprize almost lost everything defending your right to know. They aren’t alone. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a small newspaper in your community fighting similar battles every day.