SALT LAKE CITY — A bill aimed at forcing the BYU Police Department to follow the same open records rules that all other law enforcement agencies are subject to or risk decertification has been introduced in the Utah Legislature.
SB197 modifies the definition of a "law enforcement agency" in Utah to include "a private institution of higher education whose law enforcement entity or division is certified by the Commission of Public Safety," and that law enforcement agencies fall into the category of "governmental entities that are subject to government records provisions," according to the bill.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said the bill is in response to the recent controversy surrounding the BYU Police Department's contention that it is not subject to state public records laws.
"This bill was a result of the ongoing litigation between BYU and the media related to GRAMA," he said. "The bottom line is a private entity that has a police department, that police department will be subject to the Government Records Access and Management Act."
BYU spokesman Todd Hollingshead issued a brief prepared statement in response to the bill on Thursday, simply stating, "We’ve been aware that Sen. Bramble intended to bring forward this legislation and we are following it closely."
The controversy stems from a GRAMA request made by the Salt Lake Tribune seeking emails sent by BYU police regarding rape allegations made by a 19-year-old student in 2016.
The university declined to release the emails, arguing it is a "privately funded, managed and operated police department within a private university." University attorneys contended the "stated purpose of GRAMA is to allow access to certain government records held by governmental entities — not to allow access to private records of private institutions such as BYU, or internal departments of private institutions, such as University police."
But in July, 3rd District Judge Laura Scott ruled that because BYU is a state-certified police force, it has to comply with the state's GRAMA rules. About a week after the court's decision, BYU announced it was filing an appeal. The case has since been appealed to the Utah Supreme Court, which has not yet set a date to hear the case.
If BYU is forced to comply with open records laws, it could be required to release information on how BYU police communicated with the school's Honor Code Office and Title IX Office regarding sexual assaults.
The bill spells out that "a private institution of higher education whose law enforcement entity or division is certified by the Commission of Public Safety" has to adhere to the same requirements as other law enforcement entities.
On Thursday, SB197 was assigned to the Senate Rules Committee.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche