Proposed Ga. Senate bill would force open police investigations at private campuses

Georgia Senate Bill 153, inspired by a lawsuit involving Mercer University(See xxx, Page xxx), failed to pass the House Rules Committee in March to becomelaw. The bill would open the incident reports of campus police departments atprivate colleges and universities.

Because Georgia’s legislative terms lastfor two years, with two 40-day bill review periods, Senate Bill 153 will resumeits position before the House Judiciary Committee in February 2006.

“Weliterally ran out of time,” said Carolyn Carlson, vice chair of the Society forProfessional Journalists’ campus crime committee.

Legislators said the bill’sfuture looks promising because it passed the House Judiciary Committeeunanimously in the first term. It would have to pass the committee again in thesecond session before moving to the House floor for a vote to become law.

“I’m optimistic about its future,” said Sen. David Adelman (D-Decatur), whointroduced the bill after a state appeals court ruled in February that MercerUniversity police need not abide the state Open Records Act because theofficers’ authority does not constitute public powers.

The original versionof the bill would have made all reports and documents that “relate to theduties, activities and functions” of campus police available to the public, butlawyers representing private Emory University testified that the bill’sdescription of applicable documents was too vague. They compromised with Adelmanand Amanda Farahany, the attorney petitioning for access to records in theMercer University case, and reworded the bill. The new version of the bill wouldonly open records pertaining to criminal investigations.

Adelman and Carlsonpledged to garner more support for the bill in the interim period before thestart of the new legislative period. She said the local media has covered thebill’s progress thoroughly.

“We don’t plan to sit back and wait,” Carlsonsaid. “We need to make sure a good explanation gets out there. Every time we’vebeen able to explain what the bill does, we’ve had no votes againstit—ever.”

Adelman said Mercer University has been the sole dissentingvoice in the bill’s legislative journey.

“Some of the other smaller privatecolleges and universities haven’t said anything about it,” he said. “I’mcautiously optimistic that it will pass.”

A bill similar to SB 153 hasbeen before the Massachusetts Joint Committee on State Administration andRegulatory Oversight since January. Introduced by Sen. Jarrett Barrious(D-Middlesex), SB 1735 specifies that university and college campus policeofficers must disclose “all records, reports or other documentary materials ordata made or received.” Massachusett’s legislative term ends in lateJuly.

The bill accompanies a case similar to Mercer University’s. The HarvardCrimson student newspaper filed a lawsuit against the school in 2003 foraccess to 10 police files. A trial judge dismissed the case in March 2004, andthe newspaper appealed. A hearing before the Massachusetts Supreme JudicialCourt, the state’s highest court, was scheduled for Fall 2005.