Editors lose fight for crime info





PENNSYLVANIA — The Community College of Philadelphia’s student newspaper staff lost their long-running fight for access to campus crime records when the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania ruled in April that the college is not a state agency.

The supreme court decided in Community College of Philadelphia v. Brown, 674 A.2d 670 (Pa. 1996), that the Community College of Philadelphia does not perform an “essential governmental function” within the meaning of the state open records act and is therefore not an agency covered by the law.

This and other state court decisions have restricted student newspaper editors’ ability to seek information about their colleges in Pennsylvania. Courts have ruled that public universities, like Temple University and Pennsylvania State University, are not covered by the state open records act.

Joseph Sullivan, an attorney for the students, said he is disappointed with the supreme court’s decision and believes that the lower, commonwealth court’s analysis, which upheld the student’s right of access, was more accurate. He said he was also disappointed because the higher court did not explain its decision as well as the lower court had.

“The supreme court reversal didn’t engage in an extended analysis of the issues” the way the commonwealth court had, Sullivan said.

The fight began in 1992 when the editors at the Community College of Pennsylvania Student Vanguard tried to use the open records act to get access to the college’s campus security records. After the college refused the records, the editors took them to court, adding different plaintiffs each year as the editors graduated.

Sullivan emphasized that access to campus crime reports will likely be an ongoing problem for student editors at the college because the editors will continually need information that they should be entitled to under the open records law.

“The case is not moot in any sense,” he said. “The issue comes up again and again.”

This case could have gone very differently for the students if an on-going Pennsylvania open records bill had passed in time for their verdict. For the last several years, Rep. Ron Cowell (D-Pittsburgh) has proposed a bill that would open the records of all colleges and universities in the state that receive state funding.

The bill has not yet passed, however, and is not expected to pass this legislative session, said Deborah Wynn, research analyst for higher education in Cowell’s office.

Under a 1994 state law, colleges and universities in Pennsylvania are required to maintain daily chronological police logs with basic information about crimes committed on campus. The editors at the Student Vanguard pursued their case because they sought more detailed information about campus crime than is required by the logs law.


Fall 1996, Pennsylvania, reports