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Ohio High Court Rules College Police Departments Subject to Public Records Act

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On May 21, 2015, in a 4 to 3 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that private-college police departments are subject to Ohio’s open-records law, codified for purposes of Ohio Revised Code 149.43.  The case stems from a complaint filed by a student journalist who required that Otterbein University provide her with arrest records.  Otterbein denied her request, stating “[A]s a private university, Otterbein believes we are not subject to the Public Records [Act] and therefore do not make our records public.”  A lawsuit followed.

The Supreme Court of Ohio framed the case’s main issue as “whether the Otterbein police department is a public office.”  The sharply divided Court determined that it was and therefore would have to produce records that document its police activities, including the criminal reports requested by the student journalist. 

Representatives Bill Patmon and Tim Schaffer introduced HB No. 76 to amend sections 149.011 and 149.43 of the ORC to include the definitions of public record records kept by a police department established by a qualified nonprofit corporation or a campus police department established by a private college or university.

In Ohio, private colleges with sworn police officers working in campus police departments should take steps necessary to comply with the Public Records Act.  Elsewhere, if private colleges employ sworn police officers for campus security, they should anticipate similar claims from the media and the public.  While colleges in other states may wish to wait for definitive guidance from their own courts before releasing documents, they should encourage all staff to anticipate that their reports may ultimately be determined to be open to public inspection, and they should prepare all written documentation with the expectation that it may appear on the front page of the local paper.

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