Massachusettes high court hears oral arguments in Harvard open records case

The question of whether private universities can keep campus police incident records private is now in the hands of the state Supreme Judicial Court.

Justices heard an appeal Nov. 8 from The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper at Harvard University, in its fight to gain greater access to university police department records.

The paper claims that because the university police force has been given official law enforcement authority by the state, it should be subject to the state open records law.

“The Crimson has never claimed that they want every piece of information,” said Crimson lawyer Frances S. Cohen to the court, according to an article in the Crimson. The student newspaper wants materials “necessary and appropriately incidental to the power to make an arrest.”

Harvard lawyer Jeffrey Swope told the court Harvard police officers are “very different” than other officers with similar powers such as special state police officers and deputy sheriffs, according to The Associated Press.

The Student Press Law Center joined in a brief before the court supporting the Crimson.

Even if the court rules in favor of the university, efforts are underway in the state legislature to pass a bill forcing campus police to release all records under public records law, said Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security on Campus, a non-profit organization advocating increased transparency in campus crime records.

A decision is expected before April, according to the Crimson article.

SPLC View: Were the Crimson to prevail this would be an important victory – both legally and practically – in the battle for access to campus crime information at private schools nationwide. While federal law currently requires most private colleges to provide access to some campus crime information, the Crimson argues that where private campus police have the same power as state or city police they should be held similarly accountable under a state open records law. While such an argument meets the common sense test, it’s less certain that the judges in this case are buying it. Some courtroom observers said they felt that the Justices appeared more receptive to Harvard’s arguments and may narrowly interpret the Massachusetts law.