Otterbein Student Editor Sues School for Police Reports: ‘It’s an Issue of Transparency for Us’

Today’s equation, one that has triggered a multi-semester fight and now a full-blown lawsuit: Does a private university + “a public entity” = open records?

Anna Schiffbauer simply wants to see some police reports — and let other interested people see them too. The news editor of Otterbein360.com at Ohio’s Otterbein University is suing the private school to obtain copies of 47 reports filed since the start of last year. Schiffbauer and her supporters say the school should not be legally allowed to withhold the records because — unlike many private colleges and universities — it boasts a certified police force.

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According to the lawsuit, to be considered by the Ohio Supreme Court, “Otterbein University cannot avail itself of Ohio law to create a law enforcement agency that has the power to make arrests, conduct investigations and carry firearms, only to disclaim any associated duties that accompany this power. … The records relating to [the police department’s] uniquely public function are public records. That fact does not change simply because Otterbein University pays their salary.”

Schiffbauer, an Otterbein senior, tells The Columbus Dispatch more simply: “It’s an issue of transparency for us. They are a public entity associated with a private university. Their records should be public.”

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To be clear, most private schools are protected by law from releasing records like police reports (and faculty and staff salary rundowns and athletic department budgets and student fees allocation breakdowns). By comparison, most police departments are required to share records upon request, given their connection to government and their obviously public status. The legal confusion in this case of course centers on the odd mash-up of the two: private university + “a public entity.” Should it equal open records?

Otterbein officials say no, arguing the school’s overall private status encompasses its police department — the ol’ cap-and-gown trumps gun-and-handcuffs excuse. Withholding the records is also about the well-being of the students, they swear. A spokeswoman contends the university is determined “to protect our students’ information from release and we take seriously our obligation to safeguard victims of sexual assault, as well.”

Yet, the school may be forced to abandon that obligation depending on how the lawsuit — or some separate legal wrangling — shakes out.

As the Student Press Law Center reports, “The Ohio legislature is considering two separate bills that would make the records of private police forces public. HB411 would make public the records of police employed by nonprofit corporations and by most private university police forces public. HB429 aims to make records of all privately employed police public.”

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