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Newspaper granted access to records marked for destruction

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         OHIO         Freedom of Information         Sep 22, 2000    

Newspaper granted access to records marked for destruction

  • The Ohio Supreme Court finds that a record is public if it is in existence, even if it was supposed to be destroyed.

A city police department must comply with a public records request even though the item was headed to the shredder because, at the time of the request, the document existed and qualified under the law, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled.

The Columbus Dispatch sued the Columbus Police Department after it refused to grant access to a disciplinary file. Initially the police department agreed to release the records, but halted the release after the police officers’ union filed a grievance against the department. The union wanted to keep the records sealed because it claimed the city’s record retention schedule and its collective bargaining agreement required the records to be destroyed prior to the time of the request.

In a brief opinion, the court found the police union’s arguments unconvincing. The court noted that in previous opinions it had decided that a public record did not lose its status simply because it was supposed to be destroyed. The court was similarly unimpressed with the union’s contention that a contractual agreement, such as a collective bargaining agreement, should supercede the public access law. According to the court, had it applied the union’s interpretation, then “parties to a collective bargaining agreement could include a provision that all disputes between labor and management would be settled by a duel.” The court did not allow the union to join the suit and affirmed the lower court’s decision.

The union had filed a motion seeking to join the case as a defendant in order to argue for closure. The trial court did not allow this request and found for the Dispatch. The union and the police appealed the case to the Ohio Supreme Court where the union continued to make its argument that the records should not be released because they should have been destroyed prior to the request.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a brief urging the court to rule in favor of the newspaper because private contracts, such as the collective bargaining agreement in this case, should not limit the public’s right of access.

The court also ruled the Fraternal Order of Police had no standing to join the suit to seek closure of the record.

(The Dispatch Printing Company v. City of Columbus; Media Counsel: John Zeiger, Columbus) CC

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© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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