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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Private colleges' police departments are subject to the state open records law, a divided state Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a case involving a lawsuit brought by a student journalist.
The court's 4-3 decision said the police department at Otterbein University, in suburban Columbus, is a public office because its personnel are state-certified officers.
"Here, the mere fact that Otterbein is a private institution does not preclude its police department from being a public office," the court said in an unsigned majority opinion.
The ruling followed a lawsuit by student journalist Anna Schiffbauer last year against Otterbein after it denied a request for arrest records and other information.
Student journalists at the liberal-arts college, which is in Westerville, have fought it over the release of records since the campus security force became a full-fledged police department in 2011.
"It's beneficial not only for the journalism students at Otterbein but also for the public of Westerville, the everyday residents," Schiffbauer, who has since graduated, said in an interview. "Just to be able to have that oversight of public agencies, and just to make sure everything is as transparent as it should be and as the law requires."
Schiffbauer's attorney, Jack Greiner, called her a hero for sticking with the lawsuit.
"It would have been very easy for her to graduate and get on with her life," he said.
Otterbein argued that it is exempt from public-records laws as a private institution and that federal law requires it to protect certain information about students from being released.
In a filing last year, attorneys for Otterbein also noted that private universities don't have the same government immunity from defamation lawsuits that could arise if they were required to release the names of people accused of wrongdoing.
Otterbein's police department will release the records requested by Schiffbauer based on the ruling, university spokeswoman Jennifer Pearce said Thursday.
Dissenting justices said the police department is not a public agency because it was created by the private university, not by state law.
"The interpretation of the majority expands the definition of 'public office' to include those entities created by private parties under law and equates them with those directly established by law," Justice Terrence O'Donnell wrote.
O'Donnell also noted the records are readily available at the Westerville Mayor's Court.
Schiffbauer, 23, said it was common for court officials to refer students back to Otterbein's police department when they tried getting records there.
Rep. Bill Patmon, a Cleveland Democrat, has introduced a bill that would put under the open records law information held by police departments established by private colleges or universities.
Attorney General Mike DeWine praised the ruling, saying public agencies should always err on the side of openness.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus.
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