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Private university’s police department deemed a public office


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lmallory

By Laura Mallory


The issue before the Supreme Court of Ohio was whether a university’s police department was a public office for the purpose of Ohio’s Public Records Act. Despite the fact the university is a private school, the Court found that the private university’s police department was providing a core function of government, the enforcement of laws, which constitutes a public office.

A student-run media website requested from the chief of the university’s police department criminal records of both students and nonstudents. The request for these records was denied by the university’s dean for student affairs. In the denial of the request, the dean indicated that as a private university, he believed that the university was not subject to the Public Records Act. Therefore, the school did not make their records public. The news editor for the student-run website filed a lawsuit in an effort to obtain the requested records.

School being private was not the issue

Under the Ohio Public Records Act, the term “public records” is defined as those records kept by any public office. Public office is defined by the Public Records Act to include any state agency, public institution, or entity established by the laws of Ohio for the exercise of any function of government.

The issue before the Supreme Court of Ohio was not whether the private university could be deemed a public office, but rather whether a private university’s campus police department is a public office. Ohio law provides that a private college or university’s board of trustees may appoint members of a campus police department to act as police officers. If a campus police officer is appointed to act as a police officer, her or she has the same authority as a police officer of a municipality or as a county sheriff.


While the university argued their police department is not a public office because it is a private school and the department is a subdivision of the university, the Supreme Court explained that even a private corporation may be considered a public officer when it performs a governmental function. In fact, the court explained that an entity need not be operated by Ohio, a local government or even a political subdivision for it to be considered a public office.

A fundamental function of government

In this instance, the university’s police department was found to be engaging in one of the most fundamental functions of government, which is the enforcement of its laws. As a result, the Court found that the university’s police department constitutes a public office, and it was required to produce the records that were requested by the student-run media website.

This Ohio decision is consistent with similar rulings in other states.  The mere fact that an organization, company, corporation, etc is a private institution does not necessarily safeguard the institution from a state’s public records act, if the institution is performing a function that is historically a government function.



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