Otterbein decision led to public records access

Cox Media Group Ohio forum includes Ohio Attorney General staff

Nine months after the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that records kept by police departments at private colleges and universities should be open to the public, school administrators, the media and public are still working to make sure the law is consistently followed.

That was one topic discussed at a public records forum sponsored Wednesday by Cox Media Group — the parent company of this news outlet — and attended by roughly 100 representatives from higher education, law enforcement, the media and the legal community.

Ground zero of the Supreme Court decision is Otterbein University north of Columbus, where the student newspaper filed a lawsuit after the university denied a request for records. The Supreme Court sided with student newspaper editor Anna Shiffbauer in May 2015.

“Students are again able to cover the community they live in. Students are able to get information about what’s happening on campus,” said Otterbein newspaper adviser Hillary Warren, who spoke at the forum.

Warren noted that prior to the ruling, university police could exercise arrest powers, pull over students and non-students both on-campus and off-campus, without having to share records with the public.

Ohio Assistant Attorney General Jefferey Clark said his office argued on the side of making private university police records public.

“The ability to arrest students from out of the classroom, the ability to seize property, the ability to take life if that’s what the situation called for, is immensely powerful,” he said, and when someone exercising policing power isn’t accountable, “we have a name for that — it’s called secret police.”

The Supreme Court decision opened up the records of police departments at schools such as the University of Dayton and Wittenberg University.

But speakers noted that areas of confusion still exist, such as separating student disciplinary records shielded from public disclosure by federal law from police records that are clearly public. Public and private universities across Ohio have shown varied interpretation of the law and how to follow it.

That’s why Cox Media Group decided to host the event, according to Jana Collier, who heads the company’s newsgathering efforts across Ohio.

“There is nothing more important to democracy than open government. It is the foundation this country was built on,” she said. “This forum was just one small part of our overall effort to push for transparency in government and to hold government accountable.”

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