N.C. judge rules against student reporter seeking campus police records

NORTH CAROLINA — A state court judge ruled Monday that ElonUniversity provided adequate information to a former student in response to hispublic records requests, avoiding a direct ruling on whether state publicrecord laws apply to campus police at private universities.

The judge grantedmotions by the university, attorney general and the state to dismiss a lawsuitbrought by Nick Ochsner. 

Ochsner, a formerstudent reporter for the campus television station, submitted several publicrecords request to Elon’s Campus Safety and Police department and the stateattorney general’s office during his coverage of a fellow student’s arrest inMarch 2010.

Campus policeeventually released an incident report that included the suspect’s name, dateand location of arrest, charges and bond amount.

Ochsner, however,sought the entire incident report, specifically the narrative of the arrest. Hefiled a public records request with the attorney general’s office, citing astate statute naming the attorney general as the “legal custodian” of campuspolice records.

After the officedenied his request, saying it did not have the records, Ochsner filed suitagainst the university and the attorney general’s office seeking moreinformation on the arrest and clarification on the record retentionrequirements of the attorney general.

The university arguedthat while it is not subject to the records law as a private school, what itvoluntarily released satisfied the law. The attorney general argued that hisoffice was not responsible for maintaining all records of campus policedepartments.

The North Carolina CampusPolice Act, which empowers the attorney general to grant police powers toprivate college officers, makes the attorney general “the legal custodian ofall books, papers, documents, or other records and property of the CampusPolice Program.”

Durham County SuperiorCourt Judge Mike O’Foghludha, ruling from the bench, dismissed the case andruled that the information Ochsner received fulfilled legal requirements. Thejudge also agreed that the state attorney general’s office was not required bylaw to maintain all records of campus police departments.

The judge did notaddress the question of whether police departments of private universities areheld to the state’s public records law.

Dan Anderson,spokesman for Elon, said the university would not expand upon its earlierstatement saying that the university did not believe it was required to releasethe information.

As of press time,counsel for the university did not return messages seeking comment.

Ashley Perkinson,counsel for Ochsner, said she plans to appeals to the North Carolina Court ofAppeals.

Perkinson said theappeal would address both the “legal custodian” requirements of the attorneygeneral and whether the campus police department is required to release moreinformation than the original incident report.

“If you look in thepublic records law, a public law enforcement agency ‘is any state or localdepartment.’ And that language, to me, was a catchall in that private entitieslike campus police departments receive all powers from the state and arecommissioned by the attorney general,” Perkinson said.

“I think that public records question is still out there.”

Written orders signed by the judge are still pending.