The Ohio Coalition for Open Government (OCOG) board of trustees has voted unanimously to provide a $1,500 grant to support an Otterbein student journalist’s lawsuit seeking university police records.
Anna Schiffbauer, student editor for the news website Otterbein360.com, is suing to make Otterbein University comply with Ohio public records laws. In 2011 the private university transformed its campus security operation into a state-certified police department, complete with fully sworn police officers. The police department is also permitted by the city of Westerville to enforce laws in nearby off-campus locations.
But despite this state-authorized law enforcement function, Otterbein refuses to release arrest records and incident reports as required under Ohio’s public-records laws. The university says that as a private institution it is exempt from these laws.
As the Columbus Dispatch recently reported, “More than 800 privately employed police officers in Ohio are authorized by the state to carry handguns, use deadly force and detain, search and arrest people. Yet state law allows the officers and their private-sector employers to keep arrest and incident reports secret, even from those they arrest and crime victims.”
Schiffbauer filed her lawsuit after the university refused her request for the records of people both arrested by Otterbein police and required to go before the Westerville mayor’s court. Schiffbauer’s lawsuit has been assisted by a $5,000 grant from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Legal Defense Fund.
The Ohio Supreme Court recently referred the Otterbein lawsuit for mediation. In addition, the Ohio General Assembly is considering legislation to force private police departments to comply with public records laws. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has also stated that private-sector police should be subject to the state’s public-records laws.
The Ohio Coalition for Open Government is a tax-exempt 501 (c)(3) organization established by the Ohio Newspapers Foundation in 1992. The Coalition is operated for charitable and educational purposes by conducting and supporting activities to benefit those who seek compliance with public access laws.
For more information about OCOG, or to make a donation to support the Coalition’s work, go to www.ohionews.org/legislative/open-government.