SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 21: The Notre Dame Fighting Irish logo at center court is seen before the game against the George Washington Colonials at Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center on November 21, 2012 in South Bend, Indiana. The Irish won 65-48. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Notre Dame University‘s campus police department currently has all the authority of a state-empowered law enforcement agency without having to concern itself with the watchdog function of the fourth estate, thanks to the Indiana State Supreme Court.

Notre Dame Campus Police Ruling Sets Dangerous Precedent

On Wednesday, Nov. 17, the court reversed a lower-court ruling of a suit brought against the department by ESPN and “Outside the Lines” reporter Paula Lavigne that stated that the campus police had to fulfill open records requests like any municipal police department.

The St. Joseph Superior Court had ruled on March 15 that because the department has the power to make arrests granted by the state, and has jurisdiction off campus, it was bound by the state’s open records laws. The opinion of the State Supreme Court was that those facts alone do not “transform those officers or the trustees who oversee them into public officials and employees.”

There has not yet been any word from ESPN or Lavigne about whether they will appeal to a federal court, but pending a reversal from a district court, the legal precedent that has been set for police departments at private universities is problematic.

Potential Issues with the New Status Quo

While no such issues have been raised at other private colleges or universities of the same scale of Notre Dame to date, the fact that this legal precedent now exists would easily allow other private university police departments to claim similar exemption from their respective state’s public information legislation.

Exempting campus police departments from open records laws affords those departments the ability to be selective about information released to the press in terms of how that information affects the department’s reputation. Any additional or contradicting information reported by the press would have to be labeled as at least unconfirmed, if not speculative.

Not only does this barrier potentially protect the campus police department and its officers from media scrutiny, it also protects the connected university along with its various officials and programs from the same watchdog effect.

At private universities, funding for the campus police departments and the salaries of its administrators/officers are built into the university budgets. It’s in the best interest of everyone employed by the campus police for the university to be fiscally sound and to be held in a favorable light in the public eye.

To demonstrate the potential problems of this situation, the details of recent arrests made by other state law enforcement agencies can be considered.

How The Situation Can Go South Quickly

In two August arrests of six Fighting Irish football players, the application of the state’s laws were handled by Indiana state troopers and City of South Bend police, not Notre Dame campus officers. Because these bookings were made by state agencies, the press had almost immediate access to information about the arrests via a press release by the Indiana State Police and by placing a phone call to the county detention center.

In concert with the arrests quickly going public, discipline was forthcoming quickly from the football program as well. One was dismissed from the program entirely just two days later, and another was suspended indefinitely on the same day.

If the arrests had been made by campus police instead, under this legal exemption, the campus police department would have had the option to withhold information about the arrests from the press all the way up until the players who had been charged were officially arraigned.

That would have potentially also allowed the football program to keep the players on the active roster until the arraignment as well, simply citing that they were the subjects of an ongoing investigation that only university officials are privy to.

The Purpose of Open Records Laws

Open records laws are what give the watchdog of the fourth estate its teeth. Media exists in the realm of law enforcement not only to inform the public but to hopefully avoid a highly undesirable situation.

Without uncensored, unfettered access to the documents that detail the activity of people in positions of authority, those people are only accountable to their superiors. In these situations, that would be the university itself. Taken to an extreme, that would create a situation in which the campus police department is in the pocket of the university. In an even worse case scenario, a campus police department without close supervision by university officials would essentially operate as an absolute authority.

While there are federal disclosure laws that still apply to Notre Dame and all other private universities, those laws don’t regulate campus police departments. This ruling by the Indiana State Supreme Court has handcuffed the media covering private universities and opened the door to situations which aren’t beneficial to anyone.

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