From The Canton Repository A private Ohio college fighting the release of police records says the state attorney general gave it bad public-records advice, something the attorney general’s office disputes.
At issue is a lawsuit filed by a student journalist against Otterbein University asking for arrest records and other information.
Otterbein argues it is exempt from public-records laws as a private institution and federal law requires it to protect certain information about students from release.
In a filing last year, attorneys for the suburban Columbus school 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 attorneys cite the case of former Xavier University basketball player Dez Wells, who was expelled over what he says was a false rape allegation. Last year, Wells settled his lawsuit, which had claimed Xavier and its president used him as a scapegoat to demonstrate an aggressive response to sexual assault allegations in the wake of two unrelated federal investigations.
Lawyers for the journalist in the Otterbein case say Wells’ lawsuit involved Xavier’s “University Conduct Board,” not its campus police department.
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 of state-certified officers in 2011.
College attorneys said in a court filing Wednesday they relied “to their detriment” on advice from the attorney general’s office at an open records training event that Otterbein’s police department is not subject to the open records law.
An assistant attorney general gave the advice in answering questions from college representatives, the filing said.
Otterbein’s attorneys aren’t commenting on how they believe that advice affects their case. The school’s security department became a police department in July 2011, and two representatives of the new department attended open records training offered by the attorney general’s office in November of that year.
But a spokesman for the attorney general’s office says it does not provide legal advice during such training. The office makes it clear to people attending the events to consult their lawyers about open records issues, added spokesman Dan Tierney.
Attorney General Mike DeWine believes records held by police departments at private institutions are public, Tierney said.
If the college misconstrued any statements during the training, “it can easily remedy the situation by immediately producing the public records sought in the lawsuit,” Tierney said in an email.
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.