House Bill 2485 in the Oregon Legislature sounds like something a newspaper would endorse.

The bill, which had a public hearing Thursday, Feb. 18, would require state agencies, on passage of the bill, to cut by 50% the fee for providing public records to the news media. The legislation would require local governments that are also subject to the public records law, such as cities, counties and school districts, to make the same 50% cut in fees starting Jan. 1, 2022.

The 50% reduction isn’t exclusive to news media (a term the legislation doesn’t define). Any request “made in public interest” would also qualify for the halved fee. But the bill would automatically deem requests from the news media as being in the public interest, and thus subject to the 50% fee reduction.

The idea of giving deference to the news media is not without foundation. It is reasonable to believe that a reporter is more likely to use public records for a purpose — distributing information to the public about the works of government — that could fairly be described as being in the public interest.

A citizen who isn’t a journalist, by contrast, might not have the inclination, or the ability, to use public records for that purpose.

But here’s the thing: Oregon’s Public Records Law, which dates to 1973, is not the “News Media Public Records Law.” It’s just the Public Records Law. Every citizen has the same legal right to these records. This is as it should be. Just as the law doesn’t give any group special access to records, neither should it charge any group less to retrieve those records.

The Legislature should pass a version of House Bill 2485 — a version that cuts fees by 50% for everyone who makes requests. Moreover, lawmakers need to emphasize to public agencies that the purpose of the Public Records Law is to make records readily available. Too often, whether or not the person requesting is a journalist, a combination of bureaucratic inertia and excessive fees renders the law’s purpose a cruel illusion. House Bill 2485 addresses this very point: “ ... the costs of retrieving public records for reproduction can be minimal if a public body makes efforts to store public records in an orderly manner for easy retrieval.” That, not deciding whether a request is in the public interest, should be the guiding principle for all public agencies.

— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

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