Court dismisses student newspaper’s lawsuit over access to Harvard police files

MASSACHUSETTS — A court on March 8 dismissed a lawsuitfiled by a student newspaper against Harvard University, rejecting thepaper’s argument that the private university’s police department issubject to state open-records law.The Harvard Crimson filed suitlast June to gain access to Harvard University Police Department records. Thepaper argued that because HUPD officers are deputized by the Middlesex orSuffolk county sheriffs, or are sworn special state police officers,HUPD’s records — just like any other police force’s records– should be available to the public.But Harvard moved to dismissthe lawsuit, saying that because it is a private institution, it is not bound tocomply with the Massachusetts Public Records Law.Middlesex SuperiorCourt Judge Nancy Staffier agreed.“The statutory language simplydoes not provide this court with the authority to compel entities that areprivate but granted the authority to perform public functions to discloserecords,” Staffier wrote in her decision.But Staffier recognizedthe “public benefit of requiring disclosure,” and suggested that thestate legislature address the issue.The university is pleased with thecourt’s ruling, but has formed a committee to examine the issues thelawsuit raised. The committee is scheduled to give a report at the end of theschool year, said general counsel Robert W. Iuliano in a March 17 pressrelease.“The university takes seriously its responsibility tobalance the public’s interest in matters of public safety with the privacyinterests of students and others in the Harvard community who regularly interactwith the Harvard University Police Department,” Iulianosaid.The Harvard Crimson is weighing its options and has notdecided what its next step will be. An appeal is possible, but the paper is alsoconsidering lobbying the Legislature to act on this issue, said Amber Anderson,The Harvard Crimson’s attorney.“The powers exercisedby the Harvard police department officers are exactly the same as those of anyother police officers. In our country, those are powers we find very suspect andwe rely upon journalists and the public to keep an eye on those powers. Idon’t think Harvard is exempt from that,” Anderson said.

The Harvard Crimson v. Harvard College, et al., No. 03-3137 (Middlesex Co. Sup. Ct., March 8, 2004)

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