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

A courton March 8 dismissed a lawsuit filed by a student newspaper against HarvardUniversity, rejecting the paper’s argument that the private university’s policedepartment is subject to the state open-records law.

The HarvardCrimson filed suit last June to gain access to Harvard University PoliceDepartment records. The paper argued that because HUPD officers are deputized bythe Middlesex or Suffolk county sheriffs, or are sworn special state policeofficers, HUPD’s records – just like any other police force’s records – shouldbe available to the public.

But Harvard moved to dismiss the lawsuit,saying that because it is a private institution, it is not bound to comply withthe Massachusetts Public Records Law.

Middlesex Superior Court JudgeNancy Staffier agreed.

“The statutory language simply does not providethis court with the authority to compel entities that are private but grantedthe authority to perform public functions to disclose records,” Staffier wrotein her decision.

But Staffier recognized the “public benefit of requiringdisclosure,” and suggested that the state legislature address theissue. 

The Harvard Crimson is weighing its options and hasnot decided what its next step will be. An appeal is possible, but the paper isalso considering lobbying the legislature to act on this issue, said AmberAnderson, The Harvard Crimson ‘s attorney.

SPLC View: This is adisappointing ruling. As the saying goes: if it looks like a duck, walks like aduck and quacks like a duck. Harvard University Police are the policefor students, faculty and others when they are on the Cambridge, Mass., campus. The HUPD has essentially the same powers and exercises the same law enforcementauthority as Boston city police. Along with that power should come the sameaccountability and oversight. Although the judge in this case explicitlyrecognized the value in making HUPD accountable (in fact, finding that that HUPDmight even be considered “agents” of the government) she said that the “plainlanguage” of the Massachusetts open records law precluded her from ruling inThe Crimson’s favor. That is a very narrow reading of the law and not onethat other state courts would necessarily buy into when interpreting their openrecords laws. We continue to believe this is a winning issue and remain anxiousto assisting other private school student media that want to challenge theircampus police.