University professor awarded for work defending the First Amendment

(Courtesy of Bill Harbaugh)

University economics professor William T. Harbaugh was honored Saturday night at the Society of Professional Journalists of Oregon and Southwest Washington’s annual awards banquet in Portland.

A professor at the University for 17 years, Harbaugh was awarded the First Freedom Award of the SPJ’s nondaily contest. The award is given annually to an individual who has upheld the principles of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution through pushing for access to public records. Harbaugh was recognized for his public records work through his independent blog “UO Matters.”

“It’s very difficult for people to access information about the government, and the stuff that Bill does tries to right that ship,” said Christian Gaston, SPJ Oregon board member and reporter at the Forest Grove News-Times.

Harbaugh’s interest in public records was first sparked in 2007 when the University refused to give him records pertaining to a new affirmative action plan. Instead of simply handing Harbaugh the records that were supposed to be readily available to the public, he was asked to pay $270 for documents. From that point he began to investigate public records law more closely and how it pertained to the University.

In 2009, he went to Oregon’s attorney general to inquire about the legality of the University’s action and was told simply to review the Oregon public records manual. When he asked for a copy of the manual they refused to give it to him without a fee of $35 and the copy would be watermarked, so if he ever published it online they would know it was him.

“I thought this was completely ridiculous,” Harbaugh said. “I went to the law library, found the public records manual, paid my daughter $40 to scan it to PDF and then posted it on my UO website with the headline ‘Get your free and illegal copy of the Oregon Public Records Manual here.'”

The story of Harbaugh’s public record heroics led to a huge response from the online community and multiple media stories on the lack of access to the laws surrounding public records in Oregon. His actions started an outpouring of support for the public records manual to be made accessible by the attorney general’s office, and after a couple months they complied with the public and published the manual online — marking the first time the manual had ever been made public on the Internet.

“That has been very useful to journalists because now if you want to find out how to get public documents in the state of Oregon, that manual tells you what to do and how to do it,” Harbaugh said.

After getting acquainted with the law, he put his knowledge to use by requesting various items from the University and publishing them on his UO Matters blog. One public records request he was particularly proud of was when former University president Dave Frohnmayer was proposing pay cuts for faculty and Harbaugh found public records showing he had negotiated a big raise for himself with Chancellor Pernsteiner not long before. His work was appreciated by his coworkers who blew up his blog with comments.

Since then, Harbaugh’s blog has tripled its readership and stands as an effective tool for faculty, students, staff and journalists alike to find raw information on happenings at the University. Harbaugh said he wants to provide an open place for people to discuss these issues and keep providing useful public records to uncover things that normally would go unseen.

“People have told me they’re not so interested in my opinion,” Harbaugh said. “What they really appreciate is that I post public records and that I give them a place to talk about their opinion about what’s going on.”


Sam Stites

Sam Stites