The May 10, 2012 decision in State ex rel. Cincinnati Enquirer v. Craig (Slip Opinion No. 2012-Ohio-1999) from the Ohio Supreme Court is the latest ruling regarding Ohio public records law. News organizations have been requesting information pursuant to the Ohio public records statute (Ohio Rev. Code § 149.43) for years. Police departments and other public entities subject to § 149.43 have relied on the exemptions and exceptions of the public records laws to prevent disclosure of information requested by news organizations. Indeed, the Ohio Public Records Act contains several exceptions and exemptions.
Striking a Balance Between Public Disclosure and Privacy
The Ohio Public Records Act has been amended over the years in an attempt to strike a balance between public disclosure and privacy. Although Ohio courts have routinely construed the Ohio Public Records Act in favor of broad access and disclosure, the statute is not without limits. Thus, courts weigh the public’s right to know against the privacy rights of individuals. The decision by the Ohio Supreme Court in Craig is an example of the court’s protection of the privacy rights of police officers.
State ex rel. Cincinnati Enquirer v. Craig
In Craig, the Cincinnati Enquirer filed a writ of mandamus to compel the Cincinnati Police Chief to produce records relating to a shoot out involving certain police officers and members of a criminal gang. Specifically, the Cincinnati Enquirer requested “the names of the two police officers shot, their personal files, and an unredacted copy of the incident report of the shoot out.” The shoot out involved approximately 14 police officers and several members of a nationwide outlaw motorcycle gang in which two police officers were wounded and one of the gang members was killed. After the shooting, the Cincinnati Police Chief received information that the members of the motorcycle gang may target police in retaliation of the shooting.
The Cincinnati Police Chief denied the Cincinnati Enquirer’s request for the names and identifying information of the police officers wounded during the shooting in an effort to protect all police officers and their families. Approximately three months later, the Cincinnati Enquirer filed a complaint for a writ of mandamus in the Court of Appeals for Hamilton County to compel the production of the requested documents and for attorneys’ fees, and the Court of Appeals denied the writ and request for attorneys’ fees. The Cincinnati Enquirer appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court.
The Cincinnati Police Chief argued, and the Court of Appeals held, “that the requested identifying information of the wounded police officers was excepted from disclosure based on the constitutional right of privacy.” The Court noted that “[o]fficers have a fundamental constitutional interest in preventing the release of private information when disclosure would create a substantial risk of serious bodily harm, and possibly even death.”
The Cincinnati Enquirer argued that the Court of Appeals:
- “failed to focus on the threat posed by the requesting party,”
- did not properly apply the law,
- failed to realize that “the records that were requested do not contain sensitive information,” and
- did not realize that “the former police chief failed to demonstrate that any real threat existed to the wounded officers.”
Enquirer’s rights “cannot prevail over the officers’ constitutional right of privacy”
However, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected all of the arguments asserted by the Cincinnati Enquirer and concluded that “the court of appeals correctly held that the requested names of the wounded police officers were protected from disclosure under R.C. 149.43(A)(1)(v) by the constitutional right of privacy.” The Ohio Supreme Court also rejected the Cincinnati Enquirer’s claim that it was entitled to the requested information pursuant to the journalist exception (Ohio Rev. Code § 149.43(B)(9)) because the Enquirer’s rights “cannot prevail over the officers’ constitutional right of privacy.”
As such, Craig (1) held that the court of appeals “did not err in denying the Enquirer’s request for extraordinary relief in mandamus and attorneys’ fees,” and (2) affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals that the requested information was excepted from disclosure under Ohio law by the constitutional right of privacy.
Ohio Still Favors Open Access
Despite the ruling in Craig, Ohio law still favors open access to records maintained by public entities as an open government is fundamental to our democratic system. The public has a right to know how its government is handling public matters. True democracy only works in an open government, where citizens and news media organizations have access to public records while still ensuring the safety of police officers and those protected by the Ohio Public Records Act. So, the next time you want to know how the police handled a situation, then submit a public records request. Just be aware that under certain circumstances, Ohio places limits on the public’s ability to obtain certain information, including the identity of police officers who have a constitutional right of privacy.