Police at 3 private universities block access to arrest records

Campus police forces at three private universities stonewalled journalists this year when they requested access to police records.  

Harvard University in Massachusetts, Cornell University in New York and Taylor University in Indiana all argued this fall that campus police at each school are not subject to state open-records laws because they are not public agencies.

Private universities are generally not bound by state open-records laws, but journalists argue that campus police — who are often deputized by the state police and have the same authority as every other police force — should not operate free from public scrutiny.  

“They have the right to arrest, to take away a person’s liberty and freedom, but they then say the public has no right to oversight of their operations,” said Justin McLaughlin, a recent graduate of Taylor University who is challenging the school’s refusal to disclose police records.

McLaughlin requested the records while researching a series of crimes at the university, including the theft of expensive camera equipment from the Communications Department last spring.  

After he was denied access to the records, McLaughlin filed an official complaint with Indiana’s public access counselor in October. But one month later the counselor issued an advisory opinion that Taylor University’s Public Safety Department is not a “public agency” and not subject to open-records laws.  

McLaughlin appealed the counselor’s decision in late November. 

“I respond with force to your opinion because, effectively, it says that the State of Indiana has legally authorized the creation of police forces equal to sheriff’s deputies in power and authority, with shared jurisdiction in certain geographical areas, the power to arrest and detain citizens, without government control and public oversight of their operations,” McLaughlin wrote in his appeal.

McLaughlin was considering whether to pursue the matter further as of press time.

Taylor University’s general counsel, Michael Blickman, said he could not comment on the school’s open-records policies, but he did say that “the university is not a police department.”

Meanwhile in New York, Cornell University denied the Ithaca Journal access to campus police records of an alleged hate crime.

The commercial newspaper submitted an open-records request to the university in November for access to police reports of the alleged assault. 

Cornell University officials used the same argument as those at Taylor, saying it is not a public agency and thus exempt from such requests.

   But Robert Freeman, executive director of the New York Sate Committee on Open Government, said that since the university’s police officers are deputized through the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office, the records requested by the newspaper are subject to the state’s open-records laws.

The Journal appealed to the university twice and is now awaiting a formal advisory opinion from Freeman.

Earlier in 2003, the student newspaper at Harvard University, the Crimson, took its fight to obtain police records to court when it sued Harvard in July. Harvard barred the Crimson from access to police records under the same argument used by Cornell and Taylor officials.

The Crimson’s lawyer, Amber Anderson, said Harvard has submitted a motion to dismiss the case, which the district court agreed to hear in January.  Harvard said in a statement that its policies are in full compliance with the law.