As part of the Student Press Law Center’s invaluable work to help protect and empower student media nationwide, the SPLC aims to keep colleges and universities accountable by ensuring their records are publicly available. Last week, the SPLC reported on two victories: The Ohio Supreme Court and Texas lawmakers both took stands for transparency at private colleges, facilitating student journalists’ access to information they may need to thoroughly report on important issues.
Texas Senate Bill 308 would establish that a “campus police department of a private institution of higher education is a law enforcement agency and a governmental body” for purposes of determining what constitutes a public record. Senator John Whitmire, who introduced the bill, was motivated by his concern that private universities’ police departments have the same authority as public police departments but could avoid public scrutiny by withholding their records. The Texas Public Information Act prevents other law enforcement agencies from similarly having their cake and eating it too.
In March, the Texas Senate unanimously approved SB 308, and on May 19, the House of Representatives also unanimously voted in favor of the bill. It now awaits Governor Greg Abbott’s signature.
Also this month, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that Otterbein University’s police department must comply with public records requests—despite Otterbein being a private institution—because law enforcement is “historically a government function.” The police department, therefore, is “a public office for purposes of the Public Records Act.”
The court’s ruling came as a result of a lawsuit filed in 2014 by Anna Schiffbauer, who had requested university police reports during her time as editor of a student-run Otterbein news website. Her request was denied, but Ohio’s attorney general, Mike DeWine—and a majority of the court—agreed with Schiffbauer that it shouldn’t have been. DeWine wrote in his brief: “The Otterbein P.D. is a fully empowered police department, and the records of law enforcement functions at this level are not private records—they are the people’s records.”
Unfortunately, not all recent judgments are as friendly to the student press and the general public. Last month, St. Joseph County Superior Court Judge Steven Hostetler of Indiana ruled that under state law, the University of Notre Dame’s police department was not a public agency and therefore did not have to release its records. However, Hostetler also suggested that Indiana’s lawmakers may consider writing legislation to change the law.
As the SPLC notes in its coverage of the issue, Illinois lawmakers are already considering a bill like Texas’s. Between this type of legislation and bills to protect student journalism more broadly (like North Dakota’s recently enacted John Wall New Voices Act), state legislators can pack a powerful punch when it comes to defending freedom of the press on college campuses. As always, FIRE applauds the SPLC for its important work advocating for a free press, the lawmakers introducing and supporting speech-protective bills, and the students who are willing to fight for their rights in court.