Notre Dame Can Keep Police Department Records Secret

INDIANAPOLIS (CN) – The University of Notre Dame can legally deny ESPN access to its police records and crime reports regarding student-athletes, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

The 13-page unanimous ruling found that the private university’s police department is not subject to Indiana’s public record laws, because the department is not “an agency or department of any level of government.”

Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act, or APRA, “is intended to ensure Hoosiers have broad access to most government records,” wrote Justice Mark Massa, who authored the opinion. (Emphasis in original.)

The hard-fought battle began when ESPN reporter Paula Lavigne requested access to a police report and school logs of 275 Notre Dame student-athletes. The university denied the requested.

The dispute was then taken to the courtroom in 2015, with the St. Joseph Superior Court ruling that because Notre Dame is a private university, it is not subject to public record laws.

Then, the Indiana Court of Appeals flipped the decision, and found that the police department is not exempt from public record requests because it is a “law-enforcement agency.”

Notre Dame appealed the decision, sending the case to the Indiana Supreme Court.

In a September hearing before the state’s high court, ESPN’s lawyer Maggie Smith argued that because of the daily activities of the university’s police department, they are “a law enforcement agency” and that “this language allows for a private police department to be treated as any other similar police force.”

Notre Dame’s lawyer Peter Rusthoven countered that the school is simply a private institution and not a government agency.

“Whatever else Notre Dame may be, it is not the elected representatives of government,” he argued.

In a defeat for the sports-media giant, the Indiana Supreme Court found the university’s argument more compelling.

“A grant of arrest powers enabling university police departments to keep order on their private campuses does not transform those officers or the trustees who oversee them into public officials and employees subject to APRA,” Massa wrote.

ESPN said in a statement, “We are extremely disappointed by the ruling and what it represents for public transparency.”

While the case hinged on the classification of Notre Dame’s police force, it is likely to remain a point of discussion as the department can perform law-enforcement activities off its own campus, and yet is now treated differently than other police departments.

In the past year, state lawmakers tried to tackle this very issue by introducing a law that would have required private university police departments to release some arrest and criminal records, but keep private investigatory information.

The bill was eventually vetoed by Indiana Gov. and current Vice-President Elect Mike Pence, on fears that it may actually further limit access to such police records.

In perhaps an acknowledgement to that issue, the Indiana Supreme Court said in its ruling, “We acknowledge the importance of an open government, as well as the broad access granted to government records by the ARPA.  However, the job of this court is to interpret, not legislate, the statutes before it.”

Joining Massa on the unanimous panel were Justices Steven David, Loretta Rush, Geoffrey Slaughter and Robert Rucker.

Notre Dame did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment.