The University of Notre Dame's police department doesn't have to release crime reports about student athletes to ESPN, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
The court said in unanimous ruling that the private university's police department isn't a public agency that falls under the state open records law. The state's highest court reversed a state appeals court decision from March that said the law applied because the department has legal authority from the state to make arrests and has jurisdiction beyond the university's campus.
The Supreme Court justices found the public records law didn't apply to Notre Dame police because the department isn't part of any level of government.
"A grant of arrest powers enabling university police departments to keep order on their private campuses does not transform those officers or the trustees who oversee them into public officials and employees," Justice Mark Massa wrote.
Bristol, Connecticut-based ESPN said in a brief statement that it was "extremely disappointed by the ruling and what it represents for public transparency."
An ESPN attorney told the Indiana justices in September that the ability of Notre Dame police officers to arrest and apprehend represented "the core powers of the state."
ESPN sued Notre Dame in January 2015, asking a judge in South Bend to order the school to release campus police records detailing allegations against athletes. That St. Joseph County judge ruled in Notre Dame's favor three months later, finding that Indiana's private schools aren't subject to its open records law.
Peter Rusthoven, an attorney for Notre Dame, had argued that Indiana's law includes the wording "such as" in describing which law enforcement entities are subject, but lists only public agencies, not private entities. He said that if Notre Dame's police department had to comply with Indiana's records law, other aspects of the university's functions would be forced to as well.
Notre Dame spokesman Paul Browne said Wednesday that the university follows federal requirements on disclosing campus crimes and that it was pleased with the Supreme Court's decision.
An ESPN reporter initially sought any campus police reports involving any of 275 Notre Dame athletes as a victim, suspect, witness or person who reported the incident, according to court records.
"The ESPN request was so broad that even if we were a municipality we think that it would've been lawfully denied," Browne said.
Hoosier State Press Association Executive Director Steve Key, whose group filed legal briefs supporting ESPN, said he was disappointed the court didn't see the Notre Dame police as operating the same as a city or public university police department.
"I think most people would agree that the public should have the same understanding of what crime is being reported and how it's being handled whether it's being done by a private university's police department or any other police department," Key said.
Indiana legislators approved a bill earlier this year specifically sheltering the police departments at Notre Dame and 10 other Indiana private colleges from the state access laws. Republican Gov. Mike Pence, now vice president-elect, vetoed that measure in March, saying those college departments performed a government function and that limiting disclosure was "a disservice to the public and an unnecessary barrier to transparency."