Otterbein 360 honored

OtterbeinOtterbein 360, the student-run web site at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio, is one of five winners of the 2015 SPJ national Sunshine Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. The award recognizes people or organizations for their contributions to open government.

At Otterbein 360, former editor Anna Schiffbauer and colleagues, working with faculty adviser Hillary Warren, submitted a public records request for police reports of student and non-student criminal cases in 2014. The request was denied on the grounds that “a private university’s police records are not public.” A mandamus action was filed, asking the Ohio Supreme Court to order the release of the documents.

In 2015, the Court ruled that police departments at private universities are public offices and therefore must provide public records.

Hagit Limor, chair of the SPJ Legal Defense Fund (and an investigative TV reporter who also teaches journalism at the University of Cincinnati), said the LDF committee “felt so strongly [about Otterbein 360’s case] we awarded $5,000 toward the legal battle and recommended the Society of Professional Journalists Board of Directors approve an additional $5,000 in LDF funding.”

In a press release from SPJ, Limor said: “Students fight many battles beyond the challenges facing professional journalists but this is one that will benefit all. Private universities now are compelled to provide records previously hidden from public scrutiny. While this case compels the Otterbein University police chief to produce criminal records crucial to student safety, one could see the application of this ruling expanded. The court said it would apply to any entity that exercises a ‘government function.’ ”

Other Sunshine Award winners, all to be recognized at Excellence in Journalism 2015 in Orlando, Fla., Sept. 18-20:

  • Ed Timms and Kevin Krause of the Dallas Morning News, for an investigation into the practices of a non-profit created by local governments.
  • Brad Heath of USA TODAY’s for his investigation into the almost 200,000 fugitives in the United States who were secretly allowed to “escape justice merely by crossing a state border.”
  • Carolyn James — SPJ Freedom of Information chair for New York State and chair of Journalism, Media Studies and Public Relations at Hofstra University — for her open government advocacy and efforts.

Defending the First Amendment and promoting open government are more crucial now than ever. Join SPJ's fight for the public’s right to know — either as an SPJ Supporter or a professional, student or retired journalist.


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