Court orders police at private Ga. university to comply with open-records law

Police at Mercer University, a private institution, must comply withthe state open-records law that usually requires disclosure only from publicagencies, a state judge ruled Jan. 26.

Bibb County Superior Court JudgeL.A. McConnell Jr. ruled that Georgia’s Open Records Act applies to police atthe private university in Macon because officers are granted the same duties andauthority as every other police force under Georgia law.

Journalistsapplauded the court’s decision, hailing it as “ground-breaking” and calling formore disclosure of police records by private university police forcesnationwide.

“These campus police have the authority to carry guns, arrestand detain people and charge them with crimes, but there’s no public oversightwhatsoever,” said Charles N. Davis, co-chairman of the national Society ofProfessional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee and chairman of acommittee that helps coordinate efforts against secrecy in campus crimereporting. “If they’re cops, then their records should be open insofar as anyother cop’s records are open.”

The Atlanta law firm Barrett &Farahany sought the judge’s order after the university denied an open-recordsrequest for police records filed by Amanda A. Farahany, a partner in thefirm.

Farahany is representing a former Mercer University student in aseparate lawsuit against the school. The former student claims she was raped oncampus and accuses the university of failing to warn other students about thealleged crime. That lawsuit is pending in state court.

The university’slawyer, Catherine Diamond Stone, declined to comment on either case. In courtdocuments, the university argued that its police force is not obligated torelease records because it “is not a public office or agency as contemplated bythe Georgia Open Records Act.”

It is unclear whether the university willappeal.

Three other private universities – Harvard University inMassachusetts, Cornell University in New York and Taylor University in Indiana -are currently involved in similar disputes. The universities claim they do nothave to release police records because they are private institutions not subjectto state open-records law.

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