Administrators at the University of Oregon are in a tizzy because its archivists released 22,000 documents to a professor who had requested them. The school has claimed the release of the records was illegal or "unlawful" and has launched an investigation into two archivists who gave out the records.
The records, it turns out, were in the UO Archives, and records in that trove are public. There's good reason for the UO to claim otherwise: The release revealed at least one memo in which a UO lawyer plotted ways to squelch the influence of the university faculty and they voted to form a union.
Like most states, Oregon has a public records law, which says that documents "prepared, owned, used or retained," by a public body—such as the University of Oregon—are a public record and should be available for inspection by any member of the public. Many public bodies and public officials dislike scrutiny, however, and so since the public records law was passed 1973, they have chipped away at it, convincing lawmakers to add exemptions. In other cases, public officials stonewall members of the public, including the press, and try to make information that rightly belongs to the public as inaccessible as possible.
The UO's use of the word "unlawful" brings to mind an observation George Orwell made in 1946 but that is no less relevant today.
Decoding the curious case of the
University of Oregonâs misdirected records requires the deductive powers
of a master sleuth â one with an ear for dogs that do not bark, an eye
that can detect the fig behind the leaf, and a nose that will wrinkle at
the whiff of a rat. But in the absence of a Holmes, a Columbo or even a
Clouseau, ordinary Ducks are left to sort through the case on their own
by eliminating various possibilities.
Did an unnamed professor do anything
wrong when he obtained 22,000 pages of UO presidential documents?
Apparently not â the records were placed in the universityâs open
archives, and were available to anyone. All that sets the professor
apart from other members of the public was that he knew what to ask for.
Did the UOâs librarians or
archivists, two of whom have been placed on paid leave for releasing the
records, commit a breach? Evidently not â making archival materials
available to the public is the very essence of their job. The records
should have been redacted to protect against the release of such
material as legally protected information about students, but redactions
should be made by those who are the source of the documents and know
what they contain.
Did the office of the president or
someone else in the administration cause grave offense? A spokesman for
the president says the documents do not contain Social Security numbers,
medical records or financial data, eliminating several of the most
serious possible violations of student privacy. So far no damage has
been done.....So no wrongdoer can be identified in the release of the records, and no
damaging consequences have followed. A detective might conclude that
thereâs nothing for the university to be terribly upset about."