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Access adviser: Notre Dame broke law if it withheld records

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) – The University of Notre Dame violated the state’s public records law if it withheld police records requested by ESPN about possible campus crimes, the Indiana public access counselor said in an advisory opinion.

Public Access Counselor Luke Britt wrote this week that he expects private universities in Indiana that have professional police forces to follow an opinion he wrote Oct. 31 saying they must follow the state’s public records laws despite being private institutions. He also wrote in the opinion issued Monday that Notre Dame, having been previously warned, “my expectation is they release records accordingly and comply fully with the Access to Public Records Act.”

Notre Dame responded Friday that it believes it is complying with state law, saying that three advisory opinions issued by previous public access counselors had agreed with the university that its police department and those of other private colleges and universities in Indiana are not public agencies. Other private universities in Indiana that have professional police forces include Valparaiso, Butler, Marian, Anderson and Taylor.

“The law hasn’t changed over that time to include the Notre Dame Security Police Department or other departments. We believe that the current Public Access Counselor’s departure from settled interpretation of the statute is not consistent with the law or the General Assembly’s intent in excluding private university campus police,” the university said in a statement.

Britt’s opinions are advisory and don’t carry the force of law. Compelling Notre Dame to turn over the records likely would require filing and winning a lawsuit, the South Bend Tribune reported.

The opinion states ESPN submitted a public records request to Notre Dame police seeking “all incident reports, including officer narrative, for certain specified individuals.” The opinion states Notre Dame denied the request by ESPN “as well as claiming it does not have records responsive to your request.”

Britt wrote that he expects law enforcement agencies to adapt to his opinion.

“The reversal of course was not taken lightly or without regard to the impact on private university police forces,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, the burden to conform to the Access to Public Records Act should not be so burdensome as to be unreasonable.”

In his October opinion, Britt had written that Notre Dame police department had the same requirements to maintain and release public records as all other police agencies in the state.