Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has taken an interest in the public records lawsuit between a recent Otterbein University graduate and the university.
DeWine requested on Aug. 1 to the Ohio Supreme Court to accept his friend-of-the-court brief supporting the former student, and asked the court to rule against the university's request to dismiss the suit.
In February, then-senior Anna Schiffbauer, editor of the student-run news site Otterbein360.com, filed a lawsuit against the university police for their withholding of records from the editorial staff, despite repeated requests. Schiffbauer graduated in May.
Otterbein University is a private university. Since the university is not overseen by the state and does not receive state funding, the university says its police force is exempt from Ohio's public-record laws.
According to case documents, Schiffbauer argues that the university police force acts like a public office: It performs a government function and exercises powers granted by the government, so should therefore abide by Ohio public record laws.
It seems DeWine agrees with Schiffbauer.
"Otterbein University itself is not a public entity and its records as a private educational institution are not available to the public under Ohio Public Records Act," DeWine wrote in the friend-of-the-court memorandum.
"However, where statutorily empowered Otterbein police officers exercise their plenary police powers, records relating to the exercise of this power must be available to the public to ensure accountability."
In the memorandum, DeWine argues that the Otterbein police department is a "statutory public office" outlined by the Ohio Revised Code's definition.
"Like other law enforcement agencies, it clearly meets the definitions of a public office, the functional equivalent of a public office, and an institutional person responsible for public records, any one of which renders its law enforcement records subject to the requirements of the Public Records Act," DeWine wrote.
Jack Greiner, the Cincinnati attorney representing Schiffbauer, said he did not reach out to the attorney general, but representatives from his office came to him. He believes their side is further validated with DeWine's brief.
"I think it, in some respects, gives some legitimacy and credibility," Greiner said. "I view it as an affirmation when the highest law enforcement official in the state sees credibility."
Schiffbauer agrees. She said she hopes DeWine's interest will bring more awareness to the topic.
"We were really happy to hear that the attorney general was supportive of what we're trying to do," she said. "Regardless of what the justices decide, it is great to have one more group in our corner and the extra support from a prominent figure. It is probably the best thing we could have hoped for."
Otterbein University spokesperson Jennifer Pearce said in an email that the university and DeWine's office both want the same end result, but disagree on the means of accomplishing it.
"We share the attorney general's goals of transparency and campus safety and we think our position is better suited to achieve those outcomes. We're a private university, not a public office," Pearce said.
Greiner said the discussion of transparency is at the heart of the case. He argues that since Otterbein police are able to carry weapons and have arrest powers into the city of Westerville, they cannot claim they are a private entity.
"I think that is the crux of the debate," Greiner said. "If they want to employ a private security force without weapons, then their position is 100 percent accurate."
Greiner filed the case directly to the Ohio Supreme Court in February, and parties were directed to enter mediation at the end of February. The case is no longer in mediation and the university requested a dismissal in July. Schiffbauer and DeWine both filed memos opposing the dismissal.
The Ohio Supreme Court must still must rule on Otterbein's motion to dismiss.