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School Board, Register-Guard Settle Public Records Dispute

Board and newspaper jointly dismiss litigation •• Newspaper will return many inadvertently disclosed records 

The Eugene School Board and the Register-Guard have settled a legal dispute about public records disclosure and exemptions.

The school board and the newspaper had differing legal opinions regarding whether certain records were exempt from disclosure under Oregon’s public records laws. While litigation to resolve the issue was pending, the board and the newspaper reached a mutually acceptable resolution and agreed to jointly dismiss the litigation.

Board chair lauds “mutually workable solution” 

“We are glad we could come to a mutually workable solution that resolved our outstanding differences in this case,” board chair Jim Torrey says. “The members of the Eugene School Board have a profound respect for Oregon’s public records and public meetings laws, and have constantly striven to act legally, ethically, properly, and in the best interest of our students, our staff, and our community. We regret any appearance or perception to the contrary.”

“We are pleased to settle this legal disagreement and return our full attention to our mission of improving educational outcomes for our district’s students,” Torrey says.

Dispute evolution  

The dispute began in 2014 after the newspaper made a public records request and the school district identified 533 pages of relevant records. The board consulted legal counsel, which determined some of the records were exempt from disclosure under Oregon’s public records law, under a variety of exemptions including attorney-client privilege. The records identified as exempt were redacted and the rest was released to the Register-Guard.

In response, the newspaper asserted that certain records should be released without redaction and petitioned the Lane County district attorney to order that the materials be released.

The district attorney agreed with the school board that most of the redacted records were exempt under statute, but declared that the exemption did not apply to 12 of the pages and that these pages should be released in full.

After careful consideration and consultation with legal counsel, the board disagreed with the district attorney’s opinion about the 12 pages and appealed the decision in circuit court. The district’s appeal sought a judgment to declare the few disputed records were exempt. The newspaper then filed a counterclaim, seeking a judgment requiring the release of all of the materials.

Before the matter could be settled or tried, the board’s outside legal counsel in April inadvertently disclosed to the Register-Guard all of the records in an unredacted format. The Register-Guard published a selection of the wrongly released materials.

Dispute resolution

The board and the Register-Guard held a judicial settlement conference on May 29, 2015, to resolve the status of the public records and put their legal differences to rest. The board and the newspaper came to a mutually acceptable resolution and agreed to jointly dismiss the litigation in its entirety.

The Register-Guard will destroy all electronic copies and return to the district all physical copies of most of the inadvertently disclosed documents. This applies to all of the documents that have not been posted online, as well as the posted documents that are exempt based on attorney-client privilege. The documents already posted online that are exempt from release for other reasons will not be returned.

The agreement was signed by the court on June 8, 2015.

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