Oregon State adviser resigns over public records dispute with university

OREGON — An Oregon State University student-media adviser has resigned her job after a months-long dispute with university lawyers over public records.

In October, Kate Willson began seeking records detailing campus crime statistics and information on employee compensation data to use for a student workshop. The school estimated charges for the crime data would top $10,000, and Willson’s request for information on employee compensation data was denied. After Willson continued pressing the school for records, they told her she was not authorized to make open-records requests as a university employee.

To date, she has received some of the records she requested but not all. The Benton County district attorney ruled today on an appeal Willson filed, finding that the university did not have give up a set of “data dictionaries and record layouts,” which Willson says are pivotal to understanding and analyzing databases.

Willson, who worked as a newspaper reporter and for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists before she was hired at Oregon State in 2012, believes the university’s actions were an attempt to intimidate her. Clark said that the university was merely adhering to the law and that administrators were not trying to silence Willson.

“We’ve been criticized for not being transparent, but we are transparent,” Clark said.

Willson’s original request for crime data sought five years of incident statistics maintained by Oregon State. Oregon State paralegal Beth Giddens told Willson the school estimated the cost of removing identifying information from the records would top $10,000. The university said this process was required under FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, although FERPA was amended in 1992 to exempt records created for law enforcement purposes.

Willson ended up amending her request to include “only the most easily released” information, she said. Then, administrators dropped the cost estimate to $24.53 and handed over a dataset.

Gaining access to the employee compensation data proved more controversial.

The point of contention was documentation accompanying the database, specifically the data dictionaries and record layouts. Administrators, in an Oct. 22 denial, cited a statute that protects government agencies from having to release computer programs. Oregon State uses a software program developed by a third-party company called Ellucian. The company determined that the data dictionaries and record layouts are proprietary information and asked that they be withheld.

After Willson challenged the refusal, officials brought up the issue of her employment.

Oregon’s public records law says that “every person” has the right to inspect public records. But university administrators ultimately told Willson that she didn’t have that legal right because she was acting as a “public official” when she requested the records, disqualifying her as a “person” in this context. Ideally, officials said, students should have requested the information.

“Kate Willson, private person, may inspect public records in response to a request,” wrote Meg Reeves, general counsel at Oregon State, in a Nov. 6 email to Willson. “Kate Willson, OSU employee, may not.”

The university’s reading of the law, Clark said, comes from the attorney general’s manual, which says that “public officials,” aside from legislators, when acting in “official capacity” cannot rely on public records law to obtain records.

Willson said the university hasn’t been consistent on this issue, however.

“Your office appeared to have no concerns about me as an employee seeking unoffending records such as basic crime statistics,” Willson wrote in a complaint letter to general counsel dated Nov. 15. “But your office raised an issue when I sought access to compensation data, which might be considered more sensitive.”

On Nov. 25, the university agreed to provide some of the compensation data at a cost of about $147 but still declined to hand over the data dictionaries and record layouts. Clark said that the “searchable database” that the university has agreed to provide to Willson is “definitely” readable and usable, which Willson disputes.

The university also refused to release student employee records, which officials say are protected under FERPA. Willson argued in her complaint to general counsel that this is an unfair reading of the law.

Willson, as a freelance journalist, still pursued the records and filed the appeal alongside reporters from The Daily Barometer, Oregon State’s student newspaper, and The Corvallis Gazette-Times. In a response letter, Oregon State called the data dictionaries and record layouts “not themselves data, but part of a software program.” In addition, officials had asserted that some materials were “trade secrets.”

Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson did not force Oregon State to release those materials, but he did agree that it was in the public interest to release employee compensation. Haroldson also did away with Oregon State’s $147 fee.

“I find that the disclosure of the information at issue is in the public interest, that you have the capacity to disseminate that information to the general public in an understandable manner,” Haroldson wrote in his letter.

While Haroldson did “not reach” OSU’s reasoning that the information were trade secrets, he said the records qualified, in his mind, as exempted computer programs.

Willson said she and her collaborators will file a revised request seeking reconsideration. In addition, she might appeal the university’s decision not to release student employee records.

Friday is Willson’s last day at Oregon State. She has accepted a position at Willamette Week, an alternative weekly published in Portland, Ore. Clark said the university respects her decision.

“I couldn’t turn down a job to work with a phenomenal group of people when I didn’t know if I’d have a job in June,” which is when her contract with Oregon State was to expire, Willson said.

By Rex Santus, SPLC staff writer. Contact Santus by email at (703) 807-1904 ext. 119.