Private N.C colleges lobby to amend campus police records law before court rules

NORTH CAROLINA — After a former college journalist’s open records battle reached North Carolina’s highest court earlier this month, some private universities have asked state legislators to pass legislation before the court rules.

The North Carolina General Assembly is considering a measure, introduced last week by State Rep. Leo Daughtry (R-Johnston County), that would significantly open up police records on all private campuses in the state. It amends the state’s Campus Police Act to mirror the language of the state’s open records law for all universities so that any person can obtain a narrative of the arrest beyond the basic date, time and location of the incident.

The “circumstances surrounding an arrest,” as worded in the bill, is information Nick Ochsner sought from Elon University in March 2010. Ochsner, a former reporter for the school’s campus TV station, was given some information about but denied the complete incident report detailing a fellow student’s arrest in 2010.

The police department justified the skeletal details because Elon is a private institution and therefore its records are private. Ochsner filed a lawsuit claiming the the department was a public agency with a state power to arrest, citing a law that names the state’s attorney general as the custodian of all campus police records.

Daughtry said private universities have lobbied him to introduce the legislation. The representative said he doesn’t have a personal opinion on the legislation but is acting on the behalf of the several private universities who came to him. Daughtry said one of the schools was Wake Forest University; he declined to name the others.

“What the bill does is say that private universities would provide exactly the same information that public universities do,” he said. “That’s a compromise that seems to have the support of the press … Everyone seems to be satisfied.”

The bill names the campus police department as the custodian of the records, shifting responsibility away from state’s attorney general, who is named as the legal custodian under the current statute. The change means that under the proposed legislation, records that other state agencies must provide — such as salary information or emails — could still be kept private by the colleges.

Ann Ochsner, Nick Ochsner’s mother and his attorney, said while the bill’s impact could be positive, it also could inhibit future access to public records. She said she wants legislators to clearly define that the police agency is public and separate from the university itself — the core of her argument against Elon.

“If you construct the wall between the campus police agency and the university itself, then there’s no in-road [to the school’s records],” she said. “The goal here is not to reach into the university as a whole. I’m not trying to reach into Elon. I’m just trying to reach into the Elon campus police, which is a separate agency.”

The North Carolina Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, an organization of more than 30 private and public campus police departments, and North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities association, helped draft the bill, according to Wake Forest Police Chief Regina Lawson and Elon spokesman Daniel Anderson.

Lawson said her department supports the bill. She said “continuing to produce public records upon request is really our ultimate goal.”

“Most of the campus law enforcement agencies are consistent when they can be,” she said. “We do feel it’s important to be transparent.”

Anderson declined to comment directly on the bill but said it was probably a “result of [Ochsner’s] lawsuit.”

“We always believed that any change to the law that governed campus police and their records is most properly handled by the legislature,” Anderson said.

Nick Oschner said he was pleasantly surprised when he heard that a bill would address the “base issue” of his court case, but agreed with his mother in that an unclear definition could set up a situation similar to his in the future.

“I think the aims of the bill are good, but I’m a little concerned in how they’re getting at that end result,” he said.

Both Nick and Ann Ochsner said they are interested and willing to work with the legislature to ensure the bill’s passage.

“The intention of the bill is a good one, that they’re trying to make these records of arrests public record,” Ann Ochsner said. “But I think they could do it a different way.”

By Daniel Moore, SPLC staff writer. Contact Moore by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.