Westerville News & Public Opinion

Otterbein journalists, police in public records fight

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Otterbein University student journalists, led by adviser and communications professor Hillary Warren, are preparing to do battle with the university officials over university police records.

Since last summer, Warren and her students have been engaged in a back and forth with university officials on whether Otterbein University Police fall under Ohio public records laws and must provide public police records.

"People in the community have a right to know how the police are behaving," Warren said. "People have a right to know if their community is safe.

"People have a right to know if someone was arrested are charged if it was done right. I don't know of another law-enforcement body in this country that's allowed to operate in secrecy."

The debate began when Otterbein's security force underwent Ohio Peace Officer training in 2011 and converted to an official police force that July.

Initially, Otterbein police officials said they believed the university police force was subject to Ohio public records law, said Otterbein Police Chief Larry Banaszak.

But at a public records training course held by the Ohio Attorney General's office last fall, an official from the Attorney General's office advised that as a private university, Otterbein did not have to provide public reports, Banaszak said.

University officials do not want to release student-related crime information if they don't have to, Banaszak said, because they want to protect the privacy of students who are victims of or who perpetrate minor campus crimes.

"We talked to the administration about this," Banaszak said.

"For our students' sake, we value protecting our students. We value protecting our privacy.

"If our student is a victim of crime or a suspect of crime, they don't want to see their name in the newspaper," Banaszak said.

"We feel we comply legally with the law, and we are looking out for the best interest of our students."

The university does follow federal regulations outlined in the Clery Act, which requires college and university security forces to release data on crime and issue crime alerts, Banaszak said.

There is an online log of crimes, and university police issue alerts if there is perceived danger to students, he said.

Despite the university's stance, Warren and her students maintain the interpretation of the law being used by university officials is incorrect.

"This is the only time that (the case law) has been used in this interpretation," Warren said.

Other private universities, including Yale, Notre Dame and Elon have gone through similar battles with students journalists and lost, Warren said.

At Otterbein, Warren and her students at the Tan and Cardinal, the university's newspaper, are working with the Student Press Law Center and are willing to take the university to court over the matter.

"We're looking at legal action," Warren said.

University Vice President of Student Affairs Bob Gatti said the university has not consulted legal counsel about the matter, but is relying on the advice received from the Ohio Attorney General's office.

While the Ohio Attorney General's office provides experts in Ohio public records laws, office spokesman Dan Tierney said what's heard at conferences can't be considered officially as legal advice.

"We cannot provide legal advice," Tierney said. "We are providing experts out there to train the public."

However, Tierney added, legal precedents would establish that private entities are less likely to be subject to public records law if they do not receive public money, which Otterbein does not.

On the flip side, police forces that have gone through state training and receive official state designation as a police force, which Otterbein has, are more likely to be subject to public records laws, Tierney said.

Student journalist Lindsey Hobbs, who has been involved in discussions with campus officials and police since they began, said her primary concern is accountability.

"What I see suddenly in this is that an organization has no one to be accountable to, and that scares me," Hobbs said.

"You don't realize what could be happening if they don't tell anyone what's going on.

"I think we all have the right to know because we all have the right to keep our administrators, our law enforcement personnel accountable."

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