Private universities are pushing for protections from lawsuits stemming from a requirement that they now make records from their police forces available to the public.
State Rep. Kirk Schuring, R-Canton, has submitted a bill that would give private institutions such as the University of Dayton and Wittenberg University the same legal protections afforded to public colleges and universities.
“If you’re doing what the law requires you to do, there should be some protection for those who claim they were defamed or libeled,” Schuring said this week.
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled last year that if private police departments operate with all of the powers of regular police — replete with badge, gun and arrest powers — they need to make incident, arrest and investigative reports available to the public.
Prior to that, police departments such as UD’s would release only scant details of reported crimes and full details only when someone was charged in court.
Schuring’s bill came at the urging of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio, which represents 51 institutions in the state, including all of the private colleges and universities that have private police forces.
AICUO President C. Todd Jones said private institutions worry about unintended consequences as they strive to suddenly make all of these records public.
“When law is effectively changed by a court, all of the implication and variations of a policy issue that would be worked out through a legislative process are not worked out through a judicial decision,” he said.
The biggest worry, he said, is that private schools don’t have “sovereign immunity,” which makes it difficult to sue public institutions for following the law.
An example: Imagine a witness to an alleged crime made false and disparaging claims against the purported suspect or victim. Those claims could end up in a police report, which would be released to the public, creating libel concerns.
Or imagine videotape used as evidence that could include compromising images of other students, possibly invading their privacy.
“Under the law, if there’s ever a lawsuit against a public entity for the release of public (records) like this, there are very substantial limitations on whether that lawsuit can go forward,” Jones said. “Whatever protections exist for release of public documents for public intuitions, (should) also exist for release of documents from private, nonprofit institutions.”
University of Dayton officials say they are working closely with AICUO and other private universities in Ohio to support the legislation.
This newspaper has reported that private colleges and universities are still working to fully comply with the law. Public and private universities across Ohio have shown varied interpretations of the law and how to follow it. Cox Media Group — the parent company of this newspaper — hosted a forum in February with the goal of ensuring that the media, legal community and institutions of higher education are all on the same page.
Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said his organization is still reviewing Schuring’s bill, but generally supports efforts to make more law enforcement records public.
“Otherwise police have the right to secretly arrest or detain people and do investigations in secrecy,” he said. “If universities don’t want to be subject to the public records law, they shouldn’t be using sworn police officers who have the same powers other police officers have.”