Legislation introduced after Georgia appeals court rules police at private university not subect to open records law

Mercer University is not required to release its campus police records to the public, the Georgia Court of Appeals ruled Feb. 3. The decision reversed a trial court’s January 2004 order requiring the private central Georgia university to release the records under the Georgia Open Records Act.

After learning of the appeals court decision, state Sen. David Adelman (D-Decatur) introduced a bill on Feb. 8 to compel private universities to disclose all police records.

Adelman said campus police exercise public authority even if employed by a private agency.

“Police departments such as those employed by colleges and universities are quasi-governmental because they use the state’s police powers to arrest and detain people, and they exercise jurisdiction outside of campus boundaries,” he told the Fulton County Daily Report.

The appeals court ruled that the private university’s police department is a private agency because it receives no state funds and does not act on behalf of any public agency. Private agencies’ records are generally not subject to the Georgia Open Records Act, but campus police officials at Mercer have official law-enforcement authority under state law. The Student Press Law Center and other media and First Amendment groups filed a brief with the court in support of public access to the records.

Amanda Farahany, a partner in the Atlanta law firm Barrett & Farahany, which sought the records, said she will petition the appeals court for reconsideration and is prepared to follow the case to the Georgia State Supreme Court.

SPLC View: This ruling is an unfortunate setback for those seeking access to campus crime information, but the case will go on. The Georgia Supreme Court has, in the past, issued some very positive decisions on the issue of access to campus police records. The Mercer University case and Georgia senate bill mirror similar open-records efforts in Massachusetts. The Harvard University Crimson student newspaper filed a lawsuit against the university in 2003 after the school refused to release police records. The case was dismissed in March 2004 and is currently before a state appeals court. Massachusetts state representatives introduced House Bill 1709 in December, which proposes making all records collected by private universities and colleges available to the public.