SUNSHINE WEEK: Legislatures in two states to consider opening campus police records

Fast facts on campus crime records

For more information, read the Student Press Law Center guide, “Covering Campus Crime: a Handbook for Journalists.”

Legislatures in Massachusetts andGeorgia are scheduled to vote next week on bills that would make all campuspolice departments in the two states subject to open records laws.

InMassachusetts, a three-year battle to force campus police at Harvard Universityto hand over crime-related documents will continue next week when theMassachusetts state Senate is scheduled to consider the bill.

If the bill passes in both houses, the legislation would override aJanuary state Supreme Judicial Court decision that held that Harvard’scampus police records are not subject to the state open records law because theuniversity is a private entity.

Student journalists forThe Harvard Crimson, theuniversity’s student-run newspaper, originally sued the university’spolice force in 2003 after they were denied access to campus police reports.

The newspaper’s suit claimed that because officers in theHarvard University Police Department are able to make arrests and obtain andexercise search warrants, they are public officials subject to open recordslaws.

The student newspaper filed an appeal with the state’shighest court after a state trial courtdismissed the lawsuit.

A related effort in Georgia to require publicaccess to campus police reports at private universities is gaining momentum andbipartisan support in the state Legislature.

Even when a lawsuit toaccess a university’s police records hit a brick wall last year, a bill tomake public the records of campus police at both private and public universitieshad already passed in the Georgia State Senate.

Now thestate’s House of Representatives is moving toward a favorable vote onSenate Bill 153, according to Dina Franch, a legislative aide for Sen. DavidAdelman, D-Decatur, who sponsored the bill.

The bill aims to “make records of educational facilities that employ campus policemen andthat relate to such police duties, activities and functions open to inspectionin the same manner as other records of public agencies,” according to thebill’s text.

Franch said the bill received a favorable reportfrom a House committee in January and bipartisan support for the bill may moveit toward a House vote in the last week of the legislative session, which endsnext week.

“It’s a bill that pretty much everyonesupports,” she said.

The legislative effort picked up steam inMay 2005 after the Supreme Court of Georgia declined to review a lower court’sruling in a lawsuit to make Mercer University Police Department records open tothe public. The decision ended a court battle that lasted more than ayear.

The lawsuit was initially filed against the university onbehalf of a female student who was sexually assaulted at a fraternity party. Herlawyers requested records of the police investigation of the incident, butpolice refused to release the records.

A state trial court sidedwith the student saying that underGeorgia law, campus police at the private university are granted the same dutiesand powers as public police officers.

But the university appealedthe lower court’s decision. The appeals court ruled the university’spolice force was not a public entity under state open records laws, and did nothave to turn overrecords.

Check the Student Press Law Center’s Web site tomorrow to read some examples on how college journalists can use open records to write stories. The SPLC is running a story each day this week highlighting open records issues specific to student journalists in celebration of Sunshine Week.