Private university's police refuse to release records

MISSOURI — A Washington University student newspaper isconsidering legal action against the university after campus police denied thenewspaper’s open-records request for information about aninvestigation.In April, Student Life asked for documents relatedto an alleged hazing incident by a fraternity on campus.

The WashingtonUniversity Police Department told Student Life that because it is anagency of the private university, it is not required to follow the MissouriSunshine Law.In a letter to editor in chief Jonathan Greenberger, auniversity official stated, “Washington University …is not a‘public governmental body.’ Therefore, the University is not subjectto the Missouri Sunshine Law and other laws expressly applicable to publicbodies, and the reports you seek are not open to public inspection,”Student Life reported.

“WUPD officers have receive the sametraining as their counterparts in both St. Louis City and St. Louis County,meeting state requirements for police certification. They are armed andauthorized to make arrests, investigate criminal and non-criminal incidents, andcooperate in the criminal justice process. On campus, WUPD officers possess thesame authority as do St. Louis County police officers,” the WUPD’sWeb site states.

Greenberger has met with St. Louis attorney Mary AnnWymore to pursue a resolution with the university.

Wymore is waiting tohear back from the university’s lawyers to set up a meeting. She hopes towork out a protocol with the WUPD for releasing information to StudentLife.

“As we have said all along, however, if we are unable tocome to an agreement, we reserve the right to pursue this further incourt,” Greenberger stated in an e-mail.

“Citizens throughoutthe state of Missouri have the right to obtain such records from their localpolice departments, and there is a reason for that: police officers carry gunsand can arrest or investigate people. The public deserves to have some means ofoverseeing the police, and the Sunshine Law gives them that opportunity,”Greenberger said in Student Life.

In January, a Georgia courtruled that the police department at Mercer University, a private school, mustcomply with the state’s open-records law. The ruling stated thatGeorgia’s Open Records Act applies to police at the private universitybecause officers are granted the same duties and authority as every other policeforce under Georgia law.Mercer University has appealed theruling.

The Harvard Crimson lost a similar court battle againstthe Harvard University Police Department when a judge dismissed thenewspaper’s case in March. The HUPD denied the newspaper access to policerecords The Harvard Crimson requested to investigate several crimesstudents were accused of committing, including embezzling universityfunds.

The Harvard Crimson argued that because the HUPD’sofficers are deputized by Middlesex County and have the same power and authorityas municipal officers, the university’s police should have to comply withstate open-records laws, as municipal law enforcement does.

The newspaperhas appealed the case to the Massachusetts Appeals Court. A hearing date ispending.Cornell University’s campus police denied two recordsrequests by an Ithaca, N.Y., commercial paper because Cornell is a privateinstitution.

The Ithaca Journal requested documents related to an allegedhate crime that occurred at Cornell in November 2003 and records of all thesexual assaults that occurred on the private university’s campus between1999 and 2004.Bruce Estes, managing editor at The Ithaca Journal,said he had to put the issue on the back burner while the newspaper switchedpublishers. He said he hopes to get other New York news agencies to join him ina lawsuit against the university.