MAINE ‘ The Free Press, University of Southern Maine’s newspaper, was granted access to campus police records after threatening the university with a lawsuit.
In previous years, The Free Press was given access to a special ‘Clery Act notebook’ said to include all criminal activity on campus. The Clery log existed separately from the formal police log that included all police actions. Reporters, however, discovered the police were holding back information and demanded access to the full police record.
‘The students argued they were entitled to review the formal police log under the state’s Freedom of Access Act,’ said Bonnie Rodden, faculty adviser to The Free Press. ‘They were repeatedly rebuffed by university officials.’
‘We just wanted to make sure that everything that needed to be in the Clery log was going in there,’ editor Steve Peoples said.
University counsel claimed the school was only required to disclose the criminal activity in accordance with the Clery Act, which requires all publicly funded universities to submit yearly campus crime reports. Free Press reporters were given the option of meeting weekly with the police chief to learn additional information not included in the Clery notebook.
The newspaper contacted pro bono lawyer Sigmund Schutz, who told the university his firm was willing to sue for access to the full police log, Rodden said.
‘We were not being taken seriously,’ Peoples said. ‘We just wanted to set a precedent to let the university know that if we need [the records], we can get them.’
The university agreed to make a redacted police record available to the newspaper with confidential information ‘blacked out.’
‘[The university lawyer] told us that complying with the editors’ requests would be a burden on the police department,’ Rodden said.
The university lawyer also cited the relationship between the Portland Police Department and reporters for the local newspaper. Portland Press Herald reporters do not have access to full police logs and receive their information over the phone. The Free Press did not want such a relationship.
‘The Freedom of Access Act would enable [Press Herald reporters] to get a copy of the logs if they chose. We’re just not satisfied with getting information over the phone,’ Peoples said.
In a final effort, the police department said that the records would need to be viewed at the police department, but then announced that photocopies may be made.