North Carolina legislature approves bill to open private school police records

NORTH CAROLINA — State senators today approved a bill that would make police records on all private college campuses in North Carolina more accessible.

The legislation, titled “An act to provide public access to certain information maintained by campus police agencies” was sponsored by state Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston. The legislation passed unanimously, said Mary Elizabeth Smith, a clerk in the state Senate office.

The legislation will be sent Wednesday to Gov. Pat McCrory for consideration. If signed, the legislation will require private school police agencies to disclose narrative descriptions surrounding arrests, as well as 911 calls.

Back in 2010, Nick Ochsner, a student journalist at Elon University, requested information about a fellow student’s arrest. He was given some information but not the entire incident report.

Because Elon is a private school and its records normally are private, the police department said it did not have to give him the complete report that included the narrative.

Ochsner filed a lawsuit in April 2011, arguing that the private school police records are a matter of public record because of a state statute that names the state’s attorney general as the custodian of all campus police records.

He also argued that because the police department has the power to arrest, its officers should have to comply with state law like any other public agency.

Both a trial court and an appeals court sided with Elon that the records were not public. Ochsner appealed to the state’s supreme court, which heard the case in February 2013.

The legislation was introduced shortly after oral arguments, at the request of private colleges in the state, the bill’s sponsor told the Student Press Law Center in February.

The North Carolina Supreme Court issued a divided opinion shortly after, essentially leaving the matter up to legislators. The House approved the bill in March, but it remained in a Senate committee until this week.

Ochsner said he was pleasantly surprised by the legislation’s passing. “It gives me renewed hope that lawmakers take this issue seriously,” he said. “This is a victory not just for student journalists but also for open record advocates.”

Ochsner said that it has been three and half years since the journey to make these records open began. “The lawsuit spawned this legislation,” he said. “It just shows that with years of persistence you can get good results.”

Daniel Anderson, vice president of communications for Elon, said in a statement that the university is pleased that the question of public access to records of private college police departments has been addressed by the General Assembly.

“The passage of this legislation at the request of North Carolina’s independent colleges and universities demonstrates the benefits of a cooperative approach to matters of public policy,” Anderson said. “We have consistently supported the passage of this sensible legislation and look forward to Governor McCrory signing the bill into law.”

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