Oregon is one of five states where journalists will soon receive free legal help, the national  Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press announced Tuesday. 

The Local Legal Initiative fund will employ a lawyer in Oregon to help defend local newsrooms throughout the state against the threat of lawsuits and assist with gaining access to public records, among other legal services. 

Salem Reporter is part of the Oregon effort.

The Reporters Committee was founded in 1970 by journalists and media lawyers to provide legal resources for journalists. Last year the organization received $10 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a Miami-based national nonprofit, to help bolster local journalism. The Local Legal Initiative is funded in part by that donation. 

The pro bono legal help should make a huge difference for journalists across Oregon, said Rachel Alexander, president of the Oregon chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a reporter for Salem Reporter.

“One of the main weaknesses of Oregon’s public records laws is that a lot of the things in it require a lawsuit to enforce and most public bodies know that most newsrooms don’t have the resources to do that, so there’s no way to really hold them accountable,” Alexander said. 

The free legal help would allow newsrooms, particularly smaller operations, to overcome those barriers, she added. 

“It’s not uncommon for journalists to be told that pretty routine requests are going to cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars to fill,” said Alexander.

The five launch states were selected from more than 45 submissions.

The interest is telling, said Katie Townsend, legal director for the Reporters Committee.

“The enthusiasm and responses we received from across the country make clear that there is a significant need for pro bono legal assistance for local journalists nationwide,” Townsend said in a press release.

Colorado, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Tennessee were also selected for the fund. 

The Reporters Committee chose Oregon for several reasons. 

Oregon public records laws make it so that when elected officials deny a public records request the only recourse to challenge their decision is a lawsuit. 

Alexander pointed to Josephine County where in 2016 commissioners made the county’s elected legal counsel responsible for handling all records requests, effectively thwarting access to information. 

Last year’s resignation of Ginger McCall also played a role in Oregon’s selection. McCall was the state’s first public records advocate. She was appointed by Gov. Kate Brown to ensure transparency through an independent office. But last September McCall resigned, citing interference in her job from the governor’s staff. 

The Reporters Committee also pointed to a rise in content sharing and collaboration among Oregon media outlets. 

The state’s submission was put together by more than a dozen media organizations across the state, including Oregon Public Radio and the Society of Professional Journalists.

“We made a case that there’s a culture of secrecy because journalists don’t have the tools to hold public officials accountable for the law and that a lawyer would change that,” Alexander said, adding that the legal help would be crucial to make elected officials take records laws seriously. 

A journalist in Spokane for four years, Alexander started working for the Salem Reporter in 2018. She said at first she was hesitant to move to Oregon after watching colleagues struggle to access public records. Access to information in the state varies from place to place, she said. 

“Some jurisdictions are really good about it, but there are a lot that tend to delay or obstruct or simply don’t respond at all,” she said. 

Last week the Enterprise launched Dollars for Disclosure, a fundraiser to help the paper cover the mounting cost of public records requests made to the county’s economic development agency. The paper was previously sued by the Oregon Psychiatric Security Review Board for pursuing public records. 

Stephen J. Adler, chair of the Reporters Committee, said in a statement that the legal fund would support local journalists on the ground.  

"Each of the launch states has demonstrated enormous enthusiasm for addressing reporters’ legal challenges, and we believe this exciting initiative will make an important difference in driving high-impact enterprise and investigative reporting," Adler said.

Reporter Yadira Lopez: [email protected] or 541-473-3377