OREGON — A local prosecutor has declined an appeal from The New York Times seeking to compel the University of Oregon to turn over complete public records about a sexual misconduct investigation involving three UO men’s basketball players, prompting the newspaper to submit a new request.
Basketball players Brandon Austin, Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis were suspended and booted from the basketball team after being accused of sexually assaulting another student after they met at a house party on March 8, the newspaper reported.
When the university gave the newspaper redacted emails about the incident on May 28, the Times appealed to Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner, arguing OU wrongly used several statutes to defend the redactions, according to a letter the newspaper sent Gardner June 12 requesting the appeal.
In the letter, the university’s public records office said it made the redactions to comply with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which prohibits the release of personally identifiable information from education records without consent from the student.
However, Times attorney D. Victoria Baranetsky said the request didn’t target individual students or a specific topic. Instead, it focused on the response of seven university employees, and asked for all emails sent and received during a period of 11 days, Baranetsky said.
“[The reporter’s] request wasn’t about the information on the students, it was about the university’s handling of the case,” Baranetsky said, adding that the institution “was unfortunately using FERPA and other Oregon Open Records Law exemptions in order to cover up its own mishandlings of the case.”
In the appeal, Chief Deputy District Attorney Patricia Perlow could not determine whether OU had fulfilled the public records request because the Times and OU’s Office of Public Records gave differing accounts as to what it understood the request to be, Perlow said in an email on Wednesday to Baranetsky. Perlow said the appeal was premature because the university agreed to release additional records.
On Thursday, the Times filed a new public-records request with the university asking for additional records about the incident. The institution is currently processing the request, Baranetsky said.
Three other news outlets — the Eugene Register-Guard, the Oregonian and KATU — have also appealed to the District Attorney’s office because the university redacted emails in similar records requests about the incident. The appeals are still pending, Perlow said in an email.
On May 8, Times reporter Joshua Hunt submitted seven requests to the university asking for the contents of emails from seven university employees, including those of the men’s basketball coach. The next day, Hunt called the university’s office of public records and agreed to narrow the request to exclude emails that men’s basketball coach Dana Altman received saying only “congratulations or “good game.” The public records office also asked to exclude emails university spokeswoman Julie Brown sent and received regarding a campus recycling program.
These were the only two modifications Hunt agreed to, Baranetsky said. But Brown said the public records office understood that Hunt wanted to narrow the records request to topics that involved individual students.
University officials agreed that if the Times was still interested in the documents pertaining to the original request, they could contact the public records office, and it would be treated as a new records request. The university would have 20 days to supply the Times with the records, Brown said.
“Even in its handling of The Times’s information requests the University seems to use privacy both as a sword and a shield,” Baranetsky said in an email. “That is not the purpose of the privacy rule or any of the freedom-of-information-act exemptions. Privacy exemptions were written into the law to protect individuals from harm not to swallow FOI rules. In the wake of sexual harassment cases around the country it is especially important we protect the integrity of our FOI legislation.”
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