Papers demand crime records


Police at Wyo., Mo. campuses withhold details from reporters





Red tape is not what is standing in their way. On college and university campuses, the thick black lines that redact key crime details on campus security reports are the newest information barrier for student journalists.

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\n Whether it is legitimate confusion about federal reporting procedures or intentional omission to preserve the image of the school, reporters are finding that institutions of higher education are reluctant to release campus crime information to journalists.

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\n Editors of the Branding Iron are considering suing the University of Wyoming for withholding the details of two on-campus sexual assaults.

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\n The staff is seeking the release of locations and witness names under the state open-records law after limited information was released on April 5. The reports omitted all names, including the alleged suspects, victims and witnesses, as well as the location of the incidents.

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\n ''It was basically a narrative with no particular information at all,'' editor Kiah Wilkins said. ''I was afraid to run it because, with what little information I had, I was concerned that it might be libelous.''

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\n Frustrated by the lack of details, Wilkins decided to publish a scanned copy of the report along with one victim's testimony on the front page.

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\n ''It was the only thing I thought I could do at the time,'' she said. Now she and other editors at the Branding Iron are contemplating a suit against the university for withholding campus crime information covered by the Wyoming open-records laws. The information may also be sought under the Clery Act, a federal law that requires colleges and universities across the United States to disclose information about crime on and around their campuses.

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\n Wilkins, with the support of the student publications board that oversees the paper, decided to consult attorney Bruce Moats. On May 13, Moats filed an objection to the lack of information with the campus police chief. He is now considering how to pursue the matter in court.

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\n ''It's a very thorny question because the Branding Iron is not an independent publication,'' Moats said. ''Essentially, we need to know if the school can sue itself.''

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\n No decision will be made until the student publications board meets again in fall.

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\n Editors of The Chart at Missouri Southern State College were also concerned about key data missing from their campus crime logs.

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\n After a yearlong battle with administrators, the newspaper staff reached a settlement with administrators in April after an open-records dispute alleging that campus police were withholding names of students and faculty involved in some incidents for fear of embarrassing the victims.

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\n Chart editor J.R. Ledford said campus security began withholding certain crime-report information, such as names and locations, after former Joplin police Lt. Ken Kennedy took over leadership of the campus security force in the fall.

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\n Ledford sought the details to nonviolent crimes, including the names of victims and the locations of the incidents on campus, which are labeled open information under the state's sunshine law. He sought the help of the Missouri Press Association and the attorney general to force the college to comply with his requests.

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\n The state's sunshine law permits law enforcement agencies to withhold information in cases that are under investigation.

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\n Terri Agee, vice president for business affairs at the college, said the incident was a misunderstanding of classification as an ongoing investigation, and that future reports would be released in their entirety.

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\n Despite the promise, Ledford said that when the reports were released to The Chart on May 24, ''there was very little information.'' He said only after Paul Maguffee, the state assistant attorney general, contacted the college at the editors' request was any significant progress made.

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\n Ledford is leery that the battle may not be over.

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\n ''Maguffee warned us that this may be the beginning of a big chess match, and if we keep pushing the issue, then security may start rearranging its record system to keep us from getting the info that we're wanting,'' Ledford said.


Fall 2002, reports