Why Is the Portland School District Suing an Education Reporter?

Emily Richmond:

Beth Slovic, a longtime education journalist in Portland, Oregon, was making dinner for her family when she noticed a bearded guy on a bicycle pulling up outside her house.

Slovic thought maybe one of her neighbors had ordered takeout. Instead, the man, a process server, came to her front door: Portland Public Schools was suing to block her public-information request for employee records.

The reporter, whose work has been published by Willamette Week, Portland Monthly magazine, and The New York Times, among others, wasn’t surprised to be served in April. The school district had said it would go to court to block Slovic from getting the records, which she first requested in November 2016.

But the moment had an element of unexpected humor for Slovic. In a prior dispute with the district, Portland schools officials refused to release an unredacted version of a contract the reporter had requested because it contained someone’s home address, according to Slovic.

“They said, ‘Beth may go knock on this person’s door,’ like that was the scariest thing in the world,” Slovic told me. “They characterized this act as incredibly threatening and invasive – which it’s not. And then, ‘Knock-knock, here comes the process server.’”

As surprising as these circumstances might sound, suing journalists and their news outlets is an increasingly popular tactic among public institutions, including school districts and universities, as they push back against requests to release documents that are typically considered open to scrutiny. (For more on this, take a look at a new investigation by The 74, focused on New York City, the nation’s largest school district.)

Government at all levels — from local to federal — has become more resistant in recent years to sharing information, said Mark Horvit, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri and a past director of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE).

Public agencies are exploiting the fact that many newsrooms have fewer resources these days to engage in prolonged legal battles, Horvit said. That means media organizations are less likely to sue when their records requests are denied, Horvit said.