COMMENTARY: Legislator suggests sharing bad news runs afoul of ethics law, 1st Amendment

The call at the dinner hour from state Rep. Mark Owens not too long ago caught me by surprise.

He wanted to know why I was sending a news story to legislators.

He thought I had “crossed the line.”

And he threatened to turn me in to the Oregon Government Ethics Commission.

In a half century of reporting, I am used to bullying tactics of public officials. But this was something new.

And I wasn’t standing for it. I made clear to Owens he was never call my home again and threaten me. He said he wasn’t threatening, but his goal was clear: He wanted to use his government power to intimidate the Enterprise and me.

And he made good on his threat, records show.

Here’s what offended him.

A group of legislators was considering the request for $3 million to prop up the Treasure Valley Reload Center. Owens had been in on the request.

The Enterprise has reported deeply and accurately on this project. Legislators from out of the area would have little idea what was at stake.

“I’m sharing the report in the Enterprise today about the pending request for $3 million for a Malheur County project,” I said in a note to a half-dozen legislators that included a basic news story.

News organizations share their work all the time – in the newspaper, online and as a courtesy to others. 

Owens instead saw something sinister, and I quote verbatim his email to the ethics commission: “I have a question a reporter has sent an email with the attached article that they had written and published to a group of legislators that were taking a vote on a E board request today.”

He pressed the ethics commission to dig in.

“My question is has this crossed the line of the 1 amendment and free speech by a reporter when they send a bias article to a group of legislators that will be casting a vote on the specific subject seems to me to be a lobbying effort,” he wrote.

What he was apparently getting at is he thought I was illegally lobbying.

The ethics commission politely replied to the legislator that the reporter “would not be required to register as a lobbyist.”

I found out about this because Owens shared his ethics messages with state Sen. Lynn Findley, a Republican from Vale. Findley produced them under a public records request.

Since then, Owens hasn’t responded to an invitation to explain his actions or to questions about his intentions. He’s gone silent on a matter he found so troubling.

But Owens’ own actions are troubling on several fronts.

He cites the First Amendment but doesn’t appear to understand that constitutional protection or its history.

The Founding Fathers wanted the press shielded from government interference. This is so the press has the capacity to freely report the truth even when those in government don’t like it.

Last year in his legislative newsletter, Owens described his attention to constitutional rights.

“I stood up in frustration to speak at length about the attack on our Second Amendment and constitutional rights coming out of the legislature this session,” he wrote.

But now he’s moved to clip the First Amendment by his intimidation.

Owens accused the Enterprise of “bias” in the article shared with legislators, but hasn’t explained what he was referring to. Making an accusation is one thing. Backing it up takes, well, facts.

But here’s what should trouble every constituent in Owens’ district – and the Enterprise is a constituent of his.

People contact legislators all the time about issues. That is what representative government is all about.

Owens’ conduct suggests that constituents who take stands or share information he doesn’t like could find themselves in his aim. He seems willing to deploy the power of government against those who cross his purposes. 

That’s only more reason for the press to be protected by the First Amendment protections. And that’s why I’m sharing this with you.

Across the country, we have seen the steady drumbeat of “fake media” and other attacks on the press. People are distrustful of the media in many ways. But here in Malheur County, at the Enterprise, we work hard every day to provide news that you can trust as true, accurate and fair. And we quickly would correct any error brought to our attention.

Other politicians have tried to intimidate the Enterprise. Greg Smith, another Republican legislator, has tried his best to crimp the work of the Enterprise. He has failed. Findley recently told me he, too, thought the Enterprise “crossed the line” in reporting on the reload center. And Dan Joyce, Malheur County judge, trotted out nonsense about the paper being funded by George Soros to push back on our reporting.

They all would apparently prefer we keep the bad news away from you, particularly about the rail project. They don’t like being held accountable.

But thank goodness for the First Amendment and for the founders of this country ensuring the government can’t control the information you get.

Look overseas if you want to see what happens when powerful people control the press.

In Russia, media outlets are silenced. The Russian people are told they are winning in Ukraine.

In China, media dissidents are jailed. The Chinese people get little truth about Covid.

No thanks.

We’ll continue informing the people of Malheur County – and the state’s leaders. If sticking up for our community is illegal in Owens’ eyes, we’re guilty. 

And proud of it.

Contact Editor Les Zaitz: [email protected]

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