Private schools keep police records shut

The battle for access to police records at private universities continues at five schools, as open-records advocates at two of the five continue legal action. Two other schools are the focus of legislative changes or media attention.

Private universities argue that because they created the police department, it is also a private entity. Open-records laws only apply to public bodies.

Advocates calling for opening the records say that when campus police have been delegated the authority of a government department they serve a public function and should be subject to the disclosure requirements.

In March, a county court threw out a student newspaper’s lawsuit against Harvard University because the judge could not find support in Massachusetts law to compel Harvard Police to disclose the records. The Harvard Crimson has appealed to the state appeals court, which is expected to hear the case in early 2005.

Daniel Carter, senior vice president of campus safety watchdog group Security on Campus, said his organization is working on a bill in the Massachusetts legislature to force Harvard to open their records. Carter said the bill would not affect the Crimson’s lawsuit.

Mercer University is appealing a lower court’s decision that the campus police are subject to the law because they have been granted law enforcement authority by the state. The court of appeals in Georgia is expected to hear the case early in 2005 as well.

The Student Press Law Center has filed friend-of-the-court briefs in both cases.

The Mercer and Harvard cases involve states’ open-records laws so a ruling in one case does not apply to another state. However, attorneys in both cases have cited rulings and opinions in the other school’s case in their arguments.

The student newspaper at Washington University in St. Louis is negotiating a resolution with the school after police denied the paper’s open-records request for documents about the investigation of a fraternity hazing incident.

Student Life editor Jonathan Greenberger said the paper’s lawyers are discussing what further action to take.

At Cornell University in upstate New York, Managing Editor of the Ithaca Journal Bruce Estes said the paper is pursuing the issue through news stories on recent sexual assaults in the area and on the issue of open records. The community newspaper has assigned a reporter to cover the issues fulltime.

In October, under mounting public pressure, Cornell agreed to release the number of sexual assaults on campus and the outcome of each case, going back to 1992.

Finally, a recent graduate of Taylor University, Justin McLaughlin, has turned his focus from legal action against the Indiana school to lobbying the state general assembly for changes in the law. McLaughlin said he had difficulty pursuing a law suit because he is no longer a student and no longer resides in Indiana. He had requested police records while researching a series of campus crimes for the student newspaper.

CASES: The Harvard Crimson, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, No. 2004-P-0774 (Mass. App. Ct. June 4, 2004)
The Corporation of Mercer University/Mercer University Police Department v. Barrett & Farahany, LLP, appeal docketed, No. A05A0186 (Ga. Ct. App. Sept. 9, 2004).

Read previous coverage on Mercer University:

  • Court orders police at private Ga. university to comply with open-records law News Flash, 1/28/2004

    Read previous coverage on Harvard University:

  • Court dismisses student newspaper’s lawsuit over access to Harvard police files News Flash, 3/23/2004
  • Court hears motion to dismiss lawsuit over access to Harvard police records News Flash, 2/25/2004
  • Police at 3 private universities block access to arrest records The Report, Winter 2003-04
  • Paper sues Harvard police The Report, Fall 2003
  • Harvard paper sues school for not releasing police records News Flash, 8/7/2003