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Records flap has ironic twist.

Byline: David Steves The Register-Guard

Right-to-know advocates are defying Oregon's attorney general by putting a restricted government document on the Web for everyone to see.

But the document at the center of this dispute isn't a sensitive record such as a list of Oregonians' Social Security numbers or names of concealed-handgun-permit holders.

Rather, it's the state's Public Records and Meetings Manual - a bland legal guide updated by the state every two years to help the public and the media gain access to government documents and attend public meetings. The state Justice Department, which publishes the 11/2-inch-thick paperback book, doesn't want it posted on the Internet by others.

Until now, the only way to get the guide has been to buy it from the state for $25.

The right-to-know advocates say they are stunned that the state is trying to stymie its free distribution on the Web.

"I was shocked. Especially given what it says on the cover. It's got this quote from James Madison about the importance of knowledge and a free society," said University of Oregon economics professor Bill Harbaugh, one of those at odds with the state over the issue.

Harbaugh decided to carry out Madison's vision as he sees it by posting a scanned version of the manual online - despite an explicit admonition that copyright law prohibits such an action. Harbaugh's a bit sassy about it, to boot. His Web site,, says: "Get your free and illegal copy of the Oregon Attorney General's Public Records and Meeting Manual here."

Department of Justice spokesman Tony Green said the last thing his boss, Attorney General John Kroger, wants is to keep the public in the dark about accessing public records and meetings. The issue is about money - specifically, the $25 charged for printed editions of the book that the state would forego if the publication is distributed online for free, Green said.

Green said the Oregon Justice Department has not decided what action to take in response to the unauthorized posting of the manual online.

He said the department had been planning for months to put the manual online, but has not yet resolved whether to charge for it.

"Our plan was to put the new one online, not the one that's almost two years old and doesn't reflect any changes by the Legislature or any court cases," Green said, referring to the edition that's to be released in January 2010.

As for the 2008 edition, Green said: "Given the interest in it, we may make something available sooner, rather than later."

Harbaugh has made frequent use of public records in researching causes, including his opposition to the siting of the new UO basketball arena and his allegation of possible wrongdoing by a senior UO official. He said the difficulties experienced in obtaining public documents makes him skeptical that the state will start distributing its public records manual for free and online.

Green said the problem is that it costs $60,000 over two years to pay state lawyers for their work on the manual and $11,000 to print it. Without the $25-per-copy fee for the printed manual, the Department of Justice will have to find another revenue source, he said.

One other right-to-know Web site - California-based - has joined Harbaugh in posting the Oregon records manual on the Internet. Its CEO, Carl Malamud, said legal disputes over the right of private parties to distribute copies of legal documents dates back to the 1800s, but have proliferated in the Internet age.

Malamud said he's sympathetic to the Oregon attorney general's need for revenue to pay for the manual's production.

But, added, state officials "think they have the right to assert copyright on these documents. That's where I disagree with them."
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Title Annotation:City/Region; Activists publish the state's public records manual on the Internet over the Justice Department's objections
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 23, 2009
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