N.J. campus withholds crime log


William Paterson U. students to push case with new records law





NEW JERSEY -- Statewide, journalists are likely to rejoice in July when an antiquated and restrictive open-records law will be replaced, but after their access to campus crime logs was recently denied, student journalists at William Paterson University especially are counting down the days.

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When the Pioneer Times stepped up its coverage of campus police in mid-March, its access to crime logs at the public university in Wayne was suddenly curtailed, adviser Liz Birge said. In the past, campus police routinely released crime information to the Pioneer Times and the Beacon, another campus newspaper, but now student journalists must go through the university public relations office to get it, she said.

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"It's bizarre, because they used to release this information to us without a complaint," Birge said. "And we didn't always do anything with it; I mean the paper hasn't always been as aggressive. [In] the [March 27] issue we wrote a real article about how much theft there was on campus and then all of a sudden we couldn't get the reports."

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University spokeswoman Mary Beth Zeman said there was no policy change, but the school began to follow a directive from the state attorney general's office that had already been in place.

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"According to our information from the deputy attorney general, the police blotter is not a public document and therefore they couldn't get access to it," Zeman said.

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The maintenance of police logs and blotters is not currently required under state law and so they do not have to be released to the public or press, said Cheryl Clarke, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general.

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According to a provision of the new open-records law, the only cause for withholding information is in cases where it appears "that the information requested or to be examined will jeopardize the safety of any person or jeopardize any investigation in progress or may be deemed otherwise inappropriate to release."

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"It's my opinion that the police blotters would fall under that, that they would fall under the exemption of criminal investigatory material," Clarke said.

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Even if the campus police crime log includes information deemed "otherwise inappropriate to release," a conflict still remains with the federal Clery Act.

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The act requires all federally funded schools to compile and provide public access to campus police logs during their regular business hours. In addition, new crimes must be added to the log within two days of the initial report being made. Schools that fail to comply with the Clery Act risk losing a portion or all of their federal funding.

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Birge said that the Pioneer Times reacted to the university's restriction by publishing an editorial decrying the school policy and pointing out the conflict with the Clery Act.

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If the university fails to change its policy and release the police logs, Birge said, the Pioneer Times plans to wait until the new state open-records law goes into effect and will then inform the university of its obligations to comply with the law.

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_The law, which was signed on Jan. 8 by then-acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco, brings New Jersey in line with most other states by presuming government records are open and requiring the government to point to specific exemptions to protect information from disclosure. This replaces the 38-year-old right-to-know law that put the onus on the requester to prove the eligibility of the request.

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John O'Brien, executive director of the New Jersey Press Association, worked with legislators for 12 years on the law, and said he is "ecstatic" about its passage.

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Birge said the university communications department created and funded Pioneer Times as "a vehicle for journalism students to write good clips" -- all the more reason to release the crime log information.

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Clarke said that despite the wording of the law, she hoped student journalists at William Paterson could work out some kind of agreement with campus police to get basic crime information without getting access to entire crime reports that are under investigation.

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"Since there's crime happening, it's helpful as a matter of safety, students should know about it," she said. "We're not trying to keep that information under wraps."

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Birge said the Pioneer Times staff is determined to gain access.

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"No one's being unpleasant about it, they're just saying, 'No, we're not going to give you that information,' " Birge said.


reports, Spring 2002