A Provo senator unveiled a bill this week that would make Brigham Young University’s police department subject to the state’s open records laws.
It’s a measure that could affect a legal fight between the university and The Salt Lake Tribune that has made its way to the Utah Supreme Court.
Sen. Curt Bramble’s bill, SB197, clarifies that a private university’s law enforcement agency is considered a governmental entity. This means BYU’s police force would have to comply with the state’s records laws, but it would also allow the agency to claim governmental immunity.
Whether the private university’s police force should be required to hand over what are considered public records in every other police department has been a subject of debate since 2016. That’s when The Tribune filed a lawsuit arguing BYU police should be subject to transparency laws because it has “full-spectrum” law enforcement authority.
“This is about transparency in government,” said Tribune Editor Jennifer Napier-Pearce. “BYU police officers can stop, search and make arrests just like sworn officers from any other police department in Utah, so it makes sense that the public has access to BYU police records.”
The law enforcement arm of the university, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has contended in court filings that it is exempt from the state’s Government Records Access and Management Act (GRAMA) because it is part of a private university.
Third District Judge Laura Scott ruled in July in The Tribune’s lawsuit that BYU’s police department is part of the government — and therefore subject to state records laws — when it is “acting as a law enforcement agency and/or its officers are acting as law enforcement officers.”
Attorneys for BYU appealed the decision to the Utah Supreme Court, where the case is pending.
Napier-Pearce said she’s grateful that Bramble wants to clarify Utah law once and for all — and hopes lawmakers will approve his bill.
Todd Hollingshead, a spokesman for BYU, did not say whether the university had a position on the proposed legislation. “We’ve been aware that Senator Bramble intended to bring forward this legislation,” he said, “and we’re following it closely.”
Bramble, who represents the area that includes BYU, has been working on the legislation for months.
“We don’t want our police powers being conducted in secret,” Bramble said Thursday. “From an accountability perspective, you want transparency.”
Bramble said his proposed legislation would not be retroactive — so it would not directly affect The Tribune’s lawsuit or other pending requests. But he said that, if it passes, the bill would send a message to the judicial branch about Utah lawmakers’ position on the issue.
The Legislature granted BYU the right to create a police force 35 years ago.
The newspaper’s lawsuit stems from a public records request submitted by then-Tribune reporter Matthew Piper in 2016 amid allegations that BYU had disciplined students who report sex crimes if they were violating the school’s Honor Code at the time of the assault. That code bans alcohol, tobacco, coffee and premarital sex, and it regulates students’ appearance and interactions with the opposite sex.
BYU police provided some records but refused to release communication between the department and the school’s Honor Code and Title IX offices.
The Tribune is not the only entity that has been fighting for records from BYU police. In August, BYU filed three separate lawsuits in an effort to keep secret a recorded interview between one of its officers and a former leader of the Missionary Training Center accused of sexually assaulting a woman in the 1980s.
Lawyers for the university wrote in court papers that the police force does not have to follow the state’s records laws because it is part of a private entity.
Ryan McKnight — executive director of the Truth and Transparency Foundation, which runs Mormonleaks — said the foundation agreed to pause the case in court until there is a decision from the Utah Supreme Court on The Tribune’s case.