Go Purdue Exponent!

You may think I have my mascots mixed up here. Perhaps you’re thinking I’ve forgotten that the Purdue mascot is the boilermaker. But if you think so, you would be wrong. The headline isn’t about a mascot, or even football. I am speaking of the Purdue student newspaper and its fight to obtain security camera footage. And Purdue University is putting up a defense in the case that is worse than the one its 2013 football team fielded (ranked 102 in the nation).

According to the complaint, in January a student named Cody Cousins shot and killed a fellow student in the basement of the Electrical Engineering building. Police arrested Cousins, who did not resist. Later, a photographer for the Exponent entered the Electrical Engineering via a second floor skywalk. He quickly encountered police, at which point he raised his hands, (he had cameras in each hand) and identified himself as a an Exponent photographer. At that point, the police displaying an aggressive streak apparently lacking in the Purdue defense, pushed the photographer to the ground, pulled him back to his feet and shoved him into a wall. In doing so, they damaged his camera equipment. They then detained him for several hours.

All of these gestapo tactics were captured by a security camera that ran continuously. The Exponent made a public records request for the footage, which the University denied. In doing so, the administration cited the “law enforcement investigatory records” exception to the Indiana Public Records Act. This left the student paper with no option but to file suit. The ACLU is handling the case.

The investigatory records exception is a feature in most public records statutes. And it is routinely over applied. It is designed to protect uncharged suspects, sources and crime victims. It also protects confidential investigatory techniques. None of those elements are present in the Purdue situation. And at a minimum, the exception should only apply to records created in the course of a criminal investigation. Again, the footage in this situation wasn’t created in the course of any investigation. It’s a camera that happens to be located in one area of an academic building which runs continuously. It probably picks up more footage of students flirting (or maybe not, these are electrical engineers after all) than anything else. But to argue that the camera has anything to do with the shooting two floors below is preposterous.

I hope the Exponent prevails here, and I hope other Indiana news organizations offer their support. There are valid policy reasons for the investigatory exception. Protecting cops who bully journalists isn’t one of them.