Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
FILE - BYU police department monitor traffic at the university basketball game in Provo on Feb 21, 2019.

SALT LAKE CITY — On the heels of news Monday that the BYU Police Department has been decertified by the state of Utah, a bill that would clarify in state law that agencies like BYU's police force are subject to Utah public records law cleared its first legislative hurdle.

The bill, SB197, won easy support from a Senate committee Monday afternoon after both Brigham Young University officials and an attorney representing the Utah Media Coalition urged support for the bill.

"This clarifies an ambiguity in the law that if an institution is going to have a police department … then they have to be subject to transparency like any other police department," the bill's sponsor, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, told lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.

The bill modifies a definition in state code to include private institutions of higher education whose law enforcement entities are certified by the Utah Department of Public Safety as agencies that are subject to Utah's public records laws.

Whether BYU police will regain its certification from the state is another issue. It will remain active as a police department until a deadline of Sept. 1 while BYU appeals the decision.

"We have no issue with being held to the same government requirements as other law enforcement agencies," BYU Police Department Chief Chris Autry told lawmakers Tuesday.

Yet the question of whether BYU's police should be subject to Utah's public records laws like any other Utah police force is at the heart of an ongoing lawsuit between BYU police and the Salt Lake Tribune.

The university and the newspaper remain embroiled in a lawsuit after BYU denied the Tribune's public records request seeking emails regarding rape allegations made by a 19-year-old student in 2016.

BYU declined to release the emails, arguing it is a "privately funded, managed and operated police department within a private university." University attorneys contended the "stated purpose of (Utah's public records law) is to allow access to certain government records held by governmental entities — not to allow access to private records of private institutions such as BYU, or internal departments of private institutions, such as university police."

The Salt Lake Tribune sued BYU, and in July, a judge ruled that because BYU is a state-certified police force, it must comply with the state's public records law. BYU has since appealed that ruling. The case is currently pending in the Utah Supreme Court, which has not yet set a date to hear the case.

Heather Gunnarson, BYU's general counsel, spoke in favor of the bill, saying the university "welcomes" the clarification in state law.

"We agree that university police should be subject to the same level of transparency and accountability as any other law enforcement office in the state," Gunnarson said.

But because SB197 is not retroactive, it will only apply to future public records requests, and it won't settle the lawsuit between BYU and the Salt Lake Tribune, Bramble said.

"That will be resolved however the courts resolve it or the parties resolve it," Bramble said.

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And as for whether or not BYU police will regain its certification, Bramble said the ambiguity in state law needs to be addressed regardless of that decision.

"Whether it gets worked out or not, we need to have this statute in place," he said.

Michael O'Brien, a media lawyer representing the Utah Media Coalition who is also representing the Tribune in its lawsuit, said the media coalition supports the bill. He conveyed support from editors of both the Tribune and the Deseret News.

The Senate committee passed the bill with a unanimous vote. It now goes to the full Senate for consideration.