Court: Private college police subject to law

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins
AP Legal Affairs Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Private colleges’ police departments are subject to the state open records law, a divided Ohio Supreme Court ruled recently in a case involving a lawsuit brought by a student journalist.

The court’s 4-3 decision said the police department at Otterbein University in suburban Columbus is a public office because its personnel are state-certified police officers.

“Here, the mere fact that Otterbein is a private institution does not preclude its police department from being a public office,” the court said in an unsigned majority opinion.

The ruling followed a lawsuit by student journalist Anna Schiffbauer last year against Otterbein after it denied a request for arrest records and other information.

Student journalists at the liberal-arts college have battled Otterbein over the release of records since the campus security force became a full-fledged police department in 2011.

Otterbein argued it is exempt from public-records laws as a private institution and that federal law requires it to protect certain information about students from being released.

In a filing last year, attorneys for Otterbein also noted that private universities don’t have the same government immunity from defamation lawsuits that could arise if they were required to release the names of accused suspects.

The university promised a statement later Thursday. Messages were left for Schiffbauer’s attorney.

Dissenting justices said the department is not a public agency because it was created by the private university, not state law.

“The interpretation of the majority expands the definition of ‘public office’ to include those entities created by private parties under law and equates them with those directly established by law,” wrote Justice Terrence O’Donnell.

O’Donnell also noted the records are readily available at the Westerville Mayor’s Court.

Rep. Bill Patmon, a Cleveland Democrat, has introduced a bill that would put under the open records law information held by police departments established by a private college or university.
 

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