(CN) – In an ongoing dispute over public access, Brigham Young University filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking to stop a newspaper from obtaining emails from the school’s police department, claiming that they are considered private.
The lawsuit is the latest in a three-year battle between the university and The Salt Lake Tribune over allegations school officials disciplined students who reported sexual assaults if they were found to be in violation of the university’s Honor Code.
BYU, a private university owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, prohibits students from drinking alcohol, tea and coffee; using swear words; abstain from sexual encounters; and adhere to specific dress codes and specific behavior around the opposite sex.
The university had previously argued that its police department was private and not subject to open records laws that other police agencies must abide by. Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature passed a bill signed by Gov. Gary Herbert that made the university police department subject to the state’s public records law.
In BYU’s lawsuit filed Wednesday, the university now argues that the emails contain private information about students protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA. It asks the state court to deny a state regulatory committee’s order to give the emails to the newspaper.
The university also calls the order “fundamentally unfair because these emails were exchanged without any understanding or expectation that they might possibly one day become subject to public disclosure.”
The newspaper filed a lawsuit in 2016 against the police department when it refused to hand over emails sent between officers and Honor Code Office employees. In July, a Utah judge ruled that the police were required to supply the newspaper with the requested emails under the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act.
“Having carefully considered the briefing, undisputed material facts, applicable law, and arguments of counsel, the court concludes that when BYUPD is acting as a law enforcement agency and/or its officers are acting as law enforcement officers, it is a governmental entity subject to GRAMA,” wrote Judge Laura Scott in her one-page ruling.
BYU appealed the ruling to the Utah Supreme Court, making arguments in early October that the law should not apply to documents filed before the 2019 law was passed. A ruling in the case in not expected until the end of the year.