Private university's police refuse to release records

MISSOURI — A Washington University student newspaper is considering legal action against the university after campus police denied the newspaper’s open-records request for information about an investigation.In April, Student Life asked for documents related to an alleged hazing incident by a fraternity on campus.

The Washington University Police Department told Student Life that because it is an agency of the private university, it is not required to follow the Missouri Sunshine Law.In a letter to editor in chief Jonathan Greenberger, a university official stated, “Washington University not a ‘public governmental body.’ Therefore, the University is not subject to the Missouri Sunshine Law and other laws expressly applicable to public bodies, and the reports you seek are not open to public inspection,” Student Life reported.

“WUPD officers have receive the same training as their counterparts in both St. Louis City and St. Louis County, meeting state requirements for police certification. They are armed and authorized to make arrests, investigate criminal and non-criminal incidents, and cooperate in the criminal justice process. On campus, WUPD officers possess the same authority as do St. Louis County police officers,” the WUPD’s Web site states.

Greenberger has met with St. Louis attorney Mary Ann Wymore to pursue a resolution with the university.

Wymore is waiting to hear back from the university’s lawyers to set up a meeting. She hopes to work out a protocol with the WUPD for releasing information to Student Life.

“As we have said all along, however, if we are unable to come to an agreement, we reserve the right to pursue this further in court,” Greenberger stated in an e-mail.

“Citizens throughout the state of Missouri have the right to obtain such records from their local police departments, and there is a reason for that: police officers carry guns and can arrest or investigate people. The public deserves to have some means of overseeing the police, and the Sunshine Law gives them that opportunity,” Greenberger said in Student Life.

In January, a Georgia court ruled that the police department at Mercer University, a private school, must comply with the state’s open-records law. The ruling stated that Georgia’s Open Records Act applies to police at the private university because officers are granted the same duties and authority as every other police force under Georgia law.Mercer University has appealed the ruling.

The Harvard Crimson lost a similar court battle against the Harvard University Police Department when a judge dismissed the newspaper’s case in March. The HUPD denied the newspaper access to police records The Harvard Crimson requested to investigate several crimes students were accused of committing, including embezzling university funds.

The Harvard Crimson argued that because the HUPD’s officers are deputized by Middlesex County and have the same power and authority as municipal officers, the university’s police should have to comply with state open-records laws, as municipal law enforcement does.

The newspaper has appealed the case to the Massachusetts Appeals Court. A hearing date is pending.Cornell University’s campus police denied two records requests by an Ithaca, N.Y., commercial paper because Cornell is a private institution.

The Ithaca Journal requested documents related to an alleged hate crime that occurred at Cornell in November 2003 and records of all the sexual assaults that occurred on the private university’s campus between 1999 and 2004.Bruce Estes, managing editor at The Ithaca Journal, said he had to put the issue on the back burner while the newspaper switched publishers. He said he hopes to get other New York news agencies to join him in a lawsuit against the university.

Fall 2004, Harvard, Harvard Crimson, Missouri, reports, student life, Washington University