New Georgia law opens crime records at private colleges; Massachusetts legislation falls short

By Whitney McFerron, SPLC staff writer

GEORGIA — Gaining access to campus crime records has oftenbeen an arduous task for journalists at private colleges and universities, butsome states are taking steps to make all campus police departments subject toopen records laws.On the last day of its session this year, the GeorgiaLegislature passed a bill that will provide journalists in the state with allnew access to crime records at private colleges and universities, student pressadvocates say. Similar legislation in Massachusetts also cleared a significanthurdle this year by passing in the state Senate, but the bill died in the Houseat the end of the legislative session on July 31.Georgia’s newlawThe Georgia legislation marks one of the first attempts in thenation to make opening detailed police records mandatory at private colleges anduniversities. All private and public institutions that receive any form offederal funding are already required under the Clery Act to release certainbasic information about crimes that occur on campus. The new law in Georgia,however, will require campus police to release more detailed information, suchas arrest records and incident reports, to journalists and other members of thepublic upon request. Carolyn Carlson, a Georgia State Universityprofessor who is also the co-chair of the Society of ProfessionalJournalists’ campus crime subcommittee, said the Georgia law will givejournalists in the state new access to information that had previously beenreadily available only at public institutions.”Prior to this law,private campuses were the only place in our society where police departmentswere able to operate outside of the public view,” Carlson said. ”Sothis opens up what I think is the last bastion of secrecy in the police world topublic scrutiny, and that’s important.”Carlson said the lawpassed the Georgia General Assembly on March 30 as a last-minute rider amendmentwithin another bill that primarily regulates street gang violence.Because it went into effect July 1, experts are still not exactly surehow some exemptions and protections within state open records laws will apply tothe new law.S. Daniel Carter, senior vice president of the campus crimewatchdog organization Security on Campus, said the Georgia Open Records Actincludes an exemption that allows officers to withhold some crime informationthat is deemed part of an ongoing investigation. ”There are anumber of potentially unanswered questions that may need to be revisited nowthat the law is on the books,” Carter said. ”But we’regenerally pleased that students at private colleges are going to get the sameinformation that people at public colleges get and any other member of thecommunity is entitled to where they live.”The Georgia legislationwas introduced in 2005 as a result of a court battle involving MercerUniversity, a private institution in Macon, Ga. In 2003, an Atlanta law firmthat represented a student who alleged she was the victim of a sexual assault oncampus sued the university because the campus police department refused toprovide records of sexual assaults on campus. After a state circuit courtoriginally decided that the records should be made public, a court of appealsruled in February 2005 that Mercer did not have to release the crime reports.The state Supreme Court declined to hear the case.Mercer UniversityPolice Chief Gary Collins directed requests for comment to theuniversity’s public relations department. Collins said he was aware of thebill, but did not know it had passed. Judith Lunsford, associate vicepresident for university relations, also said she was unaware the bill hadpassed, but later, she released a statement from Mercer president WilliamUnderwood, which read:”We think the legislation is appropriate andstrikes a proper balance between the public’s right to know and studentprivacy concerns. Mercer University has always complied fully with the law andwill continue to do so.” At Emory University, a privateschool in Atlanta, University Police Chief Craig Watson said his department didnot do anything to prepare for the new law before it took effect.”There’s really little for us to do to prepare,”Watson said. ”It’s not a major change from the way we’veoperated for a long time. While we were not subject to the open records law, wehave always worked on the philosophy of trying to abide by the spirit of thelaw.”Rachel Zelkowitz, news editor of The Emory Wheel, said thatin the past, the newspaper has not had problems with gaining access to crimeinformation from the Emory police, but she sees how the new law could bebeneficial at other schools.”I think that anything that supportsthe free and open distribution of information is a good thing,” she said.Failure in MassachusettsLegislation similar to the newGeorgia law has been in the works in Massachusetts since 2004, but once againthis year it failed to gain enough support to get through the state Legislature.Like in Georgia, the proposed Massachusetts legislation was the resultof a lawsuit against a private university in the state. In 2003, studentjournalists from The Harvard Crimson at Harvard University sued the school aftercampus police refused to provide them with crime records. The state SupremeCourt ruled in January that Harvard police records were not subject to stateopen records laws.Alice Wolf, the state representative that sponsoredthe bill in the House this year and whose district encompasses HarvardUniversity, said she decided to introduce the bill after speaking with someconcerned students from The Harvard Crimson. ”There is no reasonwhy that — just because these are private colleges but they have peoplewho have been approved as state police officers — they should not followthe same rules as everybody else,” she said.Wolf said she likelywill file the bill again in the House next year, although she has not made afinal decision. Andrew McInnes, who graduated in the spring from BostonUniversity, is the government affairs specialist with Safe Campus Initiative, anorganization made up of students at Massachusetts’ private colleges thathas lobbied for the bill. He said he still hopes that the group’s effortswill make a difference in Massachusetts and elsewhere.”We hopethat people will begin to see what’s been going on in Massachusetts, and– whether it’s students or legislatures or even the universitiesthemselves — they will take our lead in some sense and see that perhapsthere is a problem that needs to be fixed and then make moves to fix it,”he said. Virginia statuteIn addition to theGeorgia law, Virginia also contains provisions in its state statutes that insome ways expand public access to crime records at privatecolleges.The Virginia codes require that state-authorized policedepartments at private colleges must open ”criminal incidentinformation,” which includes: – the date, time and generallocation of the alleged crime – a general description of injuries sufferedor property damaged or stolen – the name and address of any individualarrested as a result of felonies committed against persons orproperty or misdemeanors involving assault, battery or moral turpitudeBut S. Daniel Carter, senior vice president of the campuscrime watchdog organization Security on Campus, said the Virginia code stopsshort of explicitly opening all crime records.”The circumstancesare similar, but I would still classify that Virginia law as more of an enhancedcrime logs law than a specific expansion of the public records law to includepolice reports at private colleges and universities,” Carter said.”It tells them certain specific things they have to make public, certainclassifications of information. It doesn’t specifically say they have tomake their police reports public. And I don’t know how it’s workingin the field — that may be the practical effect at some schools. Butit’s not the same.”Carter said the Virginia code is not asexpansive as the law recently passed in Georgia or the proposed legislation inMassachusetts.”The Georgia law, which explicitly requires the fullpolice report information to be made public, is the first law of it’s kindin the country,” Carter said. ”The Massachusetts one would besecond, and of course it was the first one introduced of the two. But they bothare really leading the nation on this.”