From the Fall 2000 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 35.
In a positive ruling for the news media, the Supreme Court of Ohio agreed with The Columbus Dispatch that a police union could not inhibit access to a public record simply because a collective bargaining agreement called for destruction of the document. The court dismissed the defendant union’s argument because the contract cannot supersede the state open records law.
The City of Columbus police agreed in June 1999 to release a long list of police disciplinary records to the Dispatch, including citizen complaints, use-of-force statistics, injury-to-prisoner reports and an inventory of previously destroyed records of complaints against officers. However, the Fraternal Order of Police filed a grievance with the police prior to the release claiming that the records were no longer public records because they should have been destroyed prior to the Dispatch‘s request. The newspaper made three requests for information, the first in August 1998. Responding to the grievance, the police chief denied the Dispatch the records and the Dispatch sued the city.
The trial court ruled in favor of the newspaper without requiring the parties to go to trial and without considering a union motion to intervene. The union had sought to intervene to enforce its contract with the Columbus police department. Additionally, the union argued, the public policy of the open records law requires compliance with the scheduled destruction of records.
The Dispatch argued that the union’s claim that the collective bargaining agreement superseded the open records law would alter the government’s relationship with its citizenry by violating the state’s underlying public policy of open government.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case supporting a ruling for the Dispatch. The Committee argued that the court should find it is against public policy to allow a collective bargaining agreement to limit open records laws. The brief urged the court to find for the Dispatch because public policy supports broad access to government information that cannot be supplanted by a preordained schedule to destroy documents.
In a September ruling, the Supreme Court agreed with the Dispatch. The court ruled that the open records statute must be liberally construed to provide access to records because that was the intent of the legislature in creating it. With the purpose of the open records law in mind, the Court found the private contract between the union and city did not supersede state law.
The court further illustrated the logical absurdity of an argument that a contract could supersede state law. “If the FOP’s interpretation of [the Ohio open records law] were correct, then parties to a collective bargaining agreement could include a provision that all disputes between labor and management would be settled by a duel,” it said.