How SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund helps real journos

The Staff of Otterbein360 | Photo Credit Hillary Warren

The Staff of Otterbein360 | Photo Credit Hillary Warren

BY: Taylor Carlier, Communications Coordinator

The Legal Defense Fund came to the aid of a university media organization, in order to defend its right to access police records.

In 2011, the Otterbein University Security Force converted to the Otterbein University Police Department. Up until that time, any crime on campus that was more than the security force could handle, was taken over by the Westerville Police Department.

The Westerville Police Department cooperated fully with Otterbein360, Otterbein University’s publication, and released to them all documents covered under Ohio’s Sunshine Laws, whenever requested. When OUSF became OUPD, this all changed.

OUPD argued that it didn’t have to adhere to the same Sunshine Laws because they are a private entity, due to being a part of a private university. They claimed that they weren’t under the same obligations as the WPD, because WPD is a public institution. This claim was made, even though OUPD officers are trained under the WPD and have the same authority as WPD officers.

Otterbein360 took action against OUPD in whatever way they could by going through mediation, ordering a cease and desist letter and taking any pre-lawsuit action possible regain its access to what they thought should be public records.

“It came to the point where it was like, ‘Well, we can either stop now, put out an editorial about it that we’ve done everything in our power that we could do, or we could move forward with legal action,’” Gena DiMattio, editor-in-chief of Otterbein360 said.

This is where the Society of Professional Journalists’ Legal Defense Fund came into action. Otterbein360 applied for and received money from LDF to obtain funds in order to pursue legal action.

The case, which was filed in February 2014 by Otterbein360 news editor Anna Schiffbauer, is now sitting in mediation in the Ohio Supreme Court.

“It has definitely been a combined effort and so many organizations, especially the Legal Defense Fund, have been incredibly supportive of our effort,” DiMattio said. “For me this has just been an amazing experience to see how not only is it something that we here at Otterbein360 believe in so strongly, but also that we have people that are generous enough to share that passion with us … We just can’t say thank you enough.”

To help other journalists who need funds to fight legal battles that support freedom of speech and press, donate items to the LDF Auction. The auction will take place at the Excellence in Journalism conference in Nashville, Tenn., Sept. 4-6. Send donations to SPJ Headquarters at 3909 N. Meridian St. Indianapolis, IN 46208 by Aug. 1 with this donation form.

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