A reporter sought a public record, ended up in a two-year legal battle. She won.

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Keeping government honest; deserting Saudi Arabia; purged by Facebook

The process server rode a bicycle to Beth Slovic's Portland home. He propped it against her white picket fence before ringing her bell at dinnertime. When the veteran journalist came to the door, he told her that she’d been sued.

She'd had the temerity to ask the Oregon city's public schools for a list of employees on administrative leave, a public record that is normally a routine matter.

This time, however, that request began a two-year battle that ended last week when the district was ordered to pay $200,000 in legal fees.

“I think I prevented some bad from happening,” Slovic told me. “The law was clear on this.”

The refusal to hand over the public record heightened the sense that the school district was hiding something.

When finally turned over, the record did yield the name of one teacher who was on leave after using unnecessary and excessive force in pinning a special education student to the ground with his head. He was getting paid on leave for nearly two years while two women placed restraining orders on him — and he was in and out of jail for violating one of the restraining orders, for domestic violence-assault and for drunk driving.

Beth Slovic
Beth Slovic (Photo/The Oregonian)

The public records case represents the struggle that reporters face in getting even basic information from the entities they cover. Officials may want to push the lines if they don’t think a publication or a freelancer will be able to afford a challenge.

“When they announced that they were going to sue me, I was a freelancer,” said Slovic, who now is a journalism instructor as well. “Maybe that was part of the equation — ‘she’s just a freelancer, she’s not going to fight us.’”

Another Oregon official made a similar assumption with the 1,500-circulation Malheur Enterprise. The weekly also fought for state records on a kidnapping and killing — and won an Investigative Reporters & Editors award earlier this year for its work.

Slovic said she worried during her long challenge that she might mess up public records law in the state if a judge ruled the wrong way. She was fortunate that the Portland Tribune, a paper that had hired her as a temporary replacement, provided legal help. And the judge ruled in her favor before the case ever saw a jury.

The Oregonian editorialized that this $200,000 lesson might bring “clarity” to Portland school officials. Slovic said she hopes the judgment will make other public officials think twice before flouting public records law.

“I would always let sunshine in to hit these records,” Slovic said. “It’s in their interest to have these records public, to illuminate problems they need to address, like the stashing of people for months at a time on paid administrative time.”

Les Zaitz, editor and publisher of the similarly sued Malheur Enterprise, put it this way: “My hope would be that government officials not only avoid ever suing a reporter again but tune up their working knowledge of their legal duties.”

Slovic recounted that a friend, seeing the award figure, asked if she was rich now.

She laughed. She did get something. Her lawyer, Slovic responded, bought her a latte.

Quick hits

JOURNALIST ‘HIT’: A newspaper close to the Turkish government listed, with photographs, 15 Saudis it said were involved in the operation against dissident journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. The New York Times, quoting the paper, said one of the 15 was a Saudi autopsy expert, and it said Khashoggi was slain and dismembered inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. The Post said the operation was ordered by the Saudi leader, Mohammed bin Salman, and pointed to credible audio and video evidence that he was slain in the consulate..

DESERTED: Three big media speakers at an economic conference dubbed the "Davos of the Desert" next week in Saudi Arabia said they would not be participating following the disappearance of Khashoggi. Billionaire and L.A. Times owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong is not going, according to an LAT spokesperson, and neither is Zanny Minton Beddoes, the top editor of The Economist. NYT columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin tweeted this: "I’m terribly distressed by the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and reports of his murder. I will no longer be participating in the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh." Ariana Huffington also turned down the Saudis, and one of the Saudi government's Washington lobbyists, the Harbour Group, resigned from representing it.

WHY NOW?: If there had been a ghost of a chance that Jamal Khashoggi was still alive, why would the BBC and Tom Friedman have excavated off-the-record critical comments that could doom him? That's the question asked by reporter Sulome Anderson, whose dad, Terry, was held hostage when he was an AP reporter in Lebanon three decades ago. Via CJR.

CANCELED: No longer ratings gold, Fox News has stopped broadcasting in full the unusual Trump rallies the president has conducted, Politico reports. On Wednesday night, Fox stayed with hurricane coverage rather than Trump’s rally in Erie, Pennsylvania. It did not broadcast the Council Bluffs, Iowa, rally on Tuesday, either, nor more than highlights from three weeknight rallies last week, though it ran in full a rally Saturday night in Kansas. (h/t Noreen Marcus)

PURGED BY FACEBOOK: 800 accounts and pages pushing political messages for profit. Violations include: spam, fake accounts, unauthorized coordination. By Elizabeth Dwoskin and Tony Romm.

MOVES: Reveal’s Ziva Branstetter is joining The Washington Post as its corporate accountability editor. Branstetter, who headed up an award-winning labor and immigration team at Reveal, will focus on business investigations and enterprise, as well as leading beats on Wall Street and the business of space for the Bezos-owned publication. ... Steve Lickteig moves from EP of audio at Slate to the first-ever EP of audio and podcasts at NBC/MSNBC (where Chris Hayes's podcast rules). Gabriel Roth will step into Lickteig's shoes at Slate, in the title of editorial director of podcasts ... Joanna Coles, formerly Hearst's chief of content, is headed to CBS This Morning as a part-time creative adviser, Variety reports.

LAYOFFS AT BLOOMBERG BNA: The branch of Michael Bloomberg’s media empire planned to lay off at least 46 staffers covered under a collective bargaining agreement, the Washington-Baltimore News Guild said. It was part of a general reduction in force at the division, purchased by Bloomberg for $1 billion in 2011, reported Chris Roush at Talking Biz Daily.

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