Photo by Supreme Court of Ohio For a person paying thousands upon thousands of dollars a year to a university, which has the responsibility to mold and educate them, transparency might seem like a simple request. However, for many private institutions across the country and in Ohio, right-to-know standards have not been the norm. A decision handed down recently by the Ohio Supreme Court may have reversed consistent legal precedent on disclosure of public records that has favored private entities previously. This new ruling could have far-reaching implications for private entities that perform public functions or accept state aid. Areas of the law involving this new precedent could extend to other police and security practices, instances of LGBT or gender discrimination, and more. Police Records At Private Universities In May, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Anna Schiffbauer, an Otterbein University graduate and former editor of Otterbein 360, an online student-run publication. Student journalists have fought the university over the release of its police department’s records since 2011.
“The court agreed with our arguments that private college police departments are performing a function of the state in exercising police powers,” DeWine said. "When statutes are unclear, public offices are encouraged to err on the side of openness and transparency…”
The court reasoned that private university police departments are subject to open record sunshine laws. According to the ruling, state-certified officers hired by the university to enforce state law, such as arresting people on and off campus, carrying a firearm, etc., are indeed performing a public function. Who pays the salaries of these officers now no longer factors into whether the police must comply with public records requests. AG Weighs In Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine agreed that records maintained by a private university’s police department should be held to the same standards as other law enforcement agencies in Ohio in a brief filed in the case. “The court agreed with our arguments that private college police departments are performing a function of the state in exercising police powers,” DeWine said. "When statutes are unclear, public offices are encouraged to err on the side of openness and transparency…” Although the Supreme Court’s decision only applies to private campus police, Ohio may move toward greater transparency in many privately-contracted state functions. Kaleb Carter is an intern with the ACLU of Ohio