Westerville News & Public Opinion

Police records lawsuit

Slow-build led to Westerville native's fight with Otterbein

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Anna Schiffbauer has lived within Westerville her whole life. She graduated from Westerville South in 2010 and moved around the block to attend Otterbein University.

As a freshman, she began to work for Otterbein's student newspaper as its business manager. She continued to work for the publication as it reworked itself into the news website Otterbein360, where she is now the news editor.

Schiffbauer loves the small university setting and its intimate atmosphere between students and faculty. She never expected that during her last semester of senior year she would file a lawsuit against her beloved university.

"If you would have told me four years ago this is how things would play out, I wouldn't believe you at all. It's an unbelievable thing," Schiffbauer said.

In February, she filed a lawsuit against the university over its campus police withholding records from the news organization, despite repeated requests.

According to case documents, Schiffbauer argues the Otterbein Police Department is an organization performing a governmental function, as it exercises police powers granted by government, and therefore is subject to rules under the Ohio Public Records Act, which requires public offices to provide records upon request. The suit specifically seeks the department's arrest records and incident reports, which are provided by public police agencies in the state.

In 2011, the university's security employees became a police force with state-certified officers and ceased to release police reports. Despite the state-certified staff, Otterbein University is a private institution that does not accept government funding and contends it is exempt from public-records laws.

Schiffbauer was still a freshman when the campus police came to be. As a business manager, she did not deal with the records requests and the frustrations like her editorial colleagues.

"I was aware, but wasn't directly involved with it," Schiffbauer said.

However, as crimes occurred on campus and the reporters were unable to acquire records to accurately report, the publication became more and more frustrated with the school's policy.

Students tried to work with school administrators, Schiffbauer said. There were several meetings between administrators and the news editor, but nothing was resolved.

Last spring, the publication asked the university to go into mediation with the Ohio Attorney General's office. It was unsuccessful.

After exhausting all possibilities, the publication's staff had two options: Give up or continue to fight.

"It was a slow, gradual build," Schiffbauer said. "Myself and the staff, we have no problem with the people involved. We just don't like the policy or agree with the policy.

"This is not the first action we tried. It wasn't an easy decision for any of us," she said.

It has been a difficult time for the graduating senior to sue the school she loves, but pushing through to fight was the best solution for the publication to create change for future news staffs.

Schiffbauer was an accomplished student at Westerville South, where she made Academic Varsity, was a Rotary Youth Exchange Student and member of the track team. She ran the streets of Otterbein's campus as a member of the South cross country team. Westerville is her family's home.

"It is difficult because it has been such a good place for me and has been a good opportunity for me," she said. "It is difficult, but at the same time it is the right thing to do. At the end of the day that is what I am left with and I'm OK with that."

Schiffbauer and her colleagues at Otterbein360 may put the university and Westerville in a different light that will attract national attention with First Amendment rights devotees.

Their efforts have been recognized by many local organizations. Schiffbauer and her colleagues at Otterbein360 won the First Amendment award from the Central Ohio Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists at the organization's regional conference April 4.

The First Amendment Award "recognizes significant contributions to the First Amendment rights of freedom of expression," according to the chapter's website.

Also at the April 4 conference, Otterbein's journalists received the Dick Goehler First Amendment Award from SPJ Region 4, which includes professional and student chapters in Ohio, Michigan, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania. Other organizations, too, such as the Ohio Coalition for Open Government and Ohio Newspaper Association, have supported the students' efforts.

"The general outpouring of support has been incredible," Schiffbauer said. "This award and all the recognition we are getting, it really goes back to former staff and the people who have worked incredibly hard to get the ball rolling on this."

Schiffbauer will receive dual degrees in business and psychology from the university upon graduation May 18. Her time as a student is finishing soon, but she will be involved with the case as long as it is open.

Though ultimately she hopes to win the case and change the school's police records policy, the goal is to deliver awareness and news for her entire hometown community.

"Otterbein is part of Westerville and Westerville citizens have a right to know what's going on in that part of their backyard as well. That's our end goal," Schiffbauer said.

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