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Law enforcement records held by a public university are public records

Published: Nov 17, 2020 by John Izzo

In January 2020, a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter sought investigation materials and University of Cincinnati law enforcement records after the university gave a graduation award to a student with a sex offender conviction.  UC denied the public records request, stating that law enforcement records in the investigation were education records protected by the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). 

FERPA prohibits education institutions from permitting the release of education records, or personally identifiable information contained therein (other than directory information) of students without written consent of their parents.  UC refused to provide the law enforcement records, arguing that the law enforcement records were educational records because most contained a student’s name.  The Enquirer argued the UC law enforcement records were not educational records because they were obtained, used, and maintained for the purposes of law enforcement.

The Ohio Court of Claims stated that the UC police department, as a public office, must provide any of its public records upon request.  UC police department records are public unless an exemption applies, such as educational records defined in FERPA.  The fact that a student is an offender does not make law enforcement documentation an educational record.  The fact that the UC police department shared records with a UC employee did not transform the records into education records.  The purposes of the Public Records Act would be thwarted if records of a law enforcement agency could be concealed merely by sharing them with an education institution. 

The Court determined the records obtained and maintained by the UC police department documented official UC police department activities.  The documents met the definition of “record” and “public record.”  The documents are not educational records.  FERPA neither requires nor prohibits the disclosure by an education institution of its law enforcement records.  The Ohio Public Records Act requires disclosure of such records. 

If you have any questions about obtaining public records in Ohio, or public records requests in general, you should consider contacting an attorney at Graff & McGovernJohn Izzo of Graff & McGovern can be reached at 614-228-5800, extension 5, or johnizzo@grafflaw.com.