Student journalists at Ohio university fight for access to records they once had

otterbein students

Evan Matsumoto, left, manages the Tan & Cardinal’s website. Lindsay Paulsen is the newspaper’s print production editor. (Photo provided by Hillary Warren)

Student reporters at Otterbein University in Ohio are fighting for access to campus police records.

It’s a battle Mark Goodman has seen play out many times as a former director of the Student Press Law Center, and he said it usually ends in favor of university police.

But Goodman said the dispute at Otterbein is different. In this case, students are fighting for records they once received. That’s one reason Otterbein’s newspaper, the Tan & Cardinal, is willing to try its luck in court.

“It’s not that students are suddenly asking for things they didn’t used to ask for; students are simply asking for the same type of reports they used to get,” said Hillary Warren, the paper’s adviser.

Police reports are important to the news staff because they publish a weekly crime log that alerts students about crimes on campus, according to former Tan & Cardinal editor Lindsey Hobbs.

She joined the staff in 2009 when police in the city of Westerville responded to serious crimes on Otterbein’s campus and managed the incident reports for those calls. Hobbs said Westerville police provided students with complete reports including the names and phone numbers of people involved, so student reporters could write full articles about important incidents.

But when Otterbein’s campus security force converted to an official police department in July 2011, they took charge of the reports previously handled by Westerville police, and Hobbs said that’s when reports started shrinking from packets to one-page responses.

“They would have a brief summary of the incident and maybe the dorm where it occurred, but no other information,” Hobbs said. “When there was disorderly conduct, we used to know every detail. Now we’re getting information like, ‘Student caught fighting other student at dorm.’”

The first year, police reports withered to two or three sentences. Then in fall of 2012, they stopped coming all together.

“(The police) suddenly said, ‘No more records at all,’” Hobbs said. “They told us, ‘We’re a private police force, so we don’t have to give you those records,’ and we were all pretty shocked.”

Although this year’s editor Lindsay Paulsen admits serious crimes are few and far between on Otterbein’s 3,000-student campus, she said the police’s privacy policy makes it difficult for reporters to investigate and analyze when these crimes occur.

“Otterbein is the type of place where a lot of times stuff is pretty mundane, but we don’t know what we don’t know,” Paulsen said.

Otterbein Chief of Police Larry Banaszak told the Westerville News & Public Opinion in February that police records were suddenly sealed because a representative from the Ohio Attorney General’s office told the police they were not subject to the Ohio Public Records Act at a training course that fall.

Otterbein sought a second opinion from Ohio lawyer John W. Herbert in March who agreed that the university is exempt because there is not enough “clear and convincing evidence” to prove their new police department is a “public office.”

According to the 2006 Ohio Supreme Court decision State ex rel. Oriana House, Inc. v. Montgomery, a public office: 1) performs a government function; 2) receives government funding: 3) has government involvement or regulation;  and 4) was created by the government, or created to avoid the requirements of the Public Records Act.

Herbert said since neither Otterbein nor the police department are publicly funded, and since the department is governed by Otterbein’s Board of Trustees (not a government agency), the Public Records Act does not apply.

But Warren and the Tan & Cardinal staff argue that since Otterbein police assumed the duties of the Westerville police on campus and exercise full police powers in the city of Westerville, they are the functional equivalent of the city police.

“We told them, ‘You are performing the duty of a public office,’” Hobbs said.

Goodman agrees with the staff, saying the university’s decision to withhold once-open records only makes it look like they have something to hide.

“This is information that everyone admits was public when incidents were handled by Westerville police,” Goodman said. “There’s no logical reason why Otterbein should choose to not release information whether they feel legally obligated or not.”

The university’s official policy on disclosure explains that they’re reluctant to give student reporters records about serious crimes on campus because the victims of those crimes, such as sexual assault, might not want their classmates to know.

“We value our student’s privacy and respect their wishes not to have their names publicized,” the statement said. “Victims of sexual assaults often feel embarrassed and traumatized and in many cases report being traumatized a second time when seeing their names in student media publications.”

Even so, the university maintains that campus police fulfill Clery Act requirements in these sensitive scenarios by issuing a text warning about crimes that pose a perceived threat and by reporting incidents in the university’s Clery Report.

But Tan & Cardinal reporters think these measures are not enough to keep the student body safe and informed.

“When campus police aren’t providing detailed accounts, it’s hard to know what serious crimes are evading student awareness,” said Tan & Cardinal news editor Katie Taggart.

As associate news editor last year, Taggart was responsible for contacting campus police to fill out a weekly crime log in the news section. She said she sent a student reporter to the police department every week for an incident report, and every week, the student returned empty handed.

The Tan & Cardinal is still seeking police records this summer, warning the university that if campus policy doesn’t change, they’re willing to sue. So far neither party has taken legal action.

“There seems to be very few concrete answers in all this, but knowing what you do have access to, what you don’t have access to and what the law says is important,” Paulsen said.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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