Portland’s bizarre lawsuit against Freedom Foundation ends in embarrassing defeat

By Ben Straka

It’s been nearly a year since the city of Portland filed a frivolous lawsuit against the Freedom Foundation trying make a point – that the union-backed city leaders don’t like us – and a few months since we announced that, as expected, a Multnomah County Circuit Judge dismissed the city’s suit in its entirety.

Yet Portland city officials are still paying for their mistake.

Paying, that is, more than $22,000 to the Freedom Foundation in attorney’s fees.

Although we’re celebrating the victory, it would have been an altogether better outcome if the Portland City Council and its attorneys had simply obeyed the law to begin with. Instead, they decided to ignore it and pursue a politically motivated attack against the Freedom Foundation on behalf of government union leaders.

Last August, the Freedom Foundation submitted a public records request for the names of Portland city employees for the purpose of assisting a city employee in running a grassroots “deauthorization” campaign. The campaign would have allowed the employees to choose for themselves whether to pay union dues or fees to the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA).

While running a hate mail campaign against the employee, LIUNA also contactedPortland city attorneys and urged them not to release the records.

It was a remarkable display of multitasking, to be sure, but there were two problems.

First LIUNA’s hate mail campaign was illegal, and the Freedom Foundation’s records request was no different than hundreds of prior requests for public employee information that we had made and had successfully fulfilled.

The city proceeded to deny the records request, and the Freedom Foundation promptly won an appeal to the Multnomah County District Attorney, who ordered the release of the records.

But it didn’t stop there. Under pressure from LIUNA (or perhaps driven by nothing more than ideologically-fueled rage at the thought of the Freedom Foundation promoting the First Amendment), city attorneys asked the Portland City Council if they could waste even more of the taxpayers’ money by suing Freedom Foundation in court.

They did, and they lost.

In his dismissal order, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Christ couldn’t help but focus on the absurdity of the case – which Portland attorneys persisted in bringing even after they had disclosed the records – writing:

“The city brought this action under ORS 192.411(2) after the district attorney ordered it to “promptly disclose” records requested by the Freedom Foundation, which the city had withheld. I have jurisdiction under ORS 192.411(1) to enjoin the city from continuing to withhold the records. But at this point, there is nothing to enjoin…. The city says that it has produced all of the records covered by the request, and the foundation agrees… You’d think the city would be happy with that outcome, but it’s not… That leaves me nothing to do but deny the city’s motion…”

The outcome was never in question, although we did question the logic – or lack thereof – of Portland city leaders throughout the entire affair. In what world is it acceptable for public officials to knowingly waste taxpayers’ money funding a baseless attack on a private organization for submitting a perfectly valid request for public records?

Oh, that’s right – in Oregon, where public officials too often do exactly what government union leaders tell them to.

Fortunately, they weren’t successful this time. Not by a long shot. At the end of the day, it’s worth counting up the score:

(1) Freedom Foundation receives records;

(2) Freedom Foundation wins lawsuit;

(3) Portland pays more than $22,000 to the Freedom Foundation in attorney’s fees;

(4) Freedom Foundation proves LIUNA guilty of violating worker’s rights; and,

(5) Portland city employees are granted the freedom they wanted all along after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus v. AFSCME.

Not unexpected, but a lopsided victory for freedom nonetheless.

Ben Straka serves as the Oregon policy analyst for the Freedom Foundation.