Proposed Ga. Senate bill would force open police investigations at private campuses

Georgia Senate Bill 153, inspired by a lawsuit involving Mercer University (See xxx, Page xxx), failed to pass the House Rules Committee in March to become law. The bill would open the incident reports of campus police departments at private colleges and universities.

Because Georgia's legislative terms last for two years, with two 40-day bill review periods, Senate Bill 153 will resume its position before the House Judiciary Committee in February 2006.

"We literally ran out of time," said Carolyn Carlson, vice chair of the Society for Professional Journalists' campus crime committee.

Legislators said the bill's future looks promising because it passed the House Judiciary Committee unanimously in the first term. It would have to pass the committee again in the second session before moving to the House floor for a vote to become law.

"I'm optimistic about its future," said Sen. David Adelman (D-Decatur), who introduced the bill after a state appeals court ruled in February that Mercer University police need not abide the state Open Records Act because the officers' authority does not constitute public powers.

The original version of the bill would have made all reports and documents that "relate to the duties, activities and functions" of campus police available to the public, but lawyers representing private Emory University testified that the bill's description of applicable documents was too vague. They compromised with Adelman and Amanda Farahany, the attorney petitioning for access to records in the Mercer University case, and reworded the bill. The new version of the bill would only open records pertaining to criminal investigations.

Adelman and Carlson pledged to garner more support for the bill in the interim period before the start of the new legislative period. She said the local media has covered the bill's progress thoroughly.

"We don't plan to sit back and wait," Carlson said. "We need to make sure a good explanation gets out there. Every time we've been able to explain what the bill does, we've had no votes against it—ever."

Adelman said Mercer University has been the sole dissenting voice in the bill's legislative journey.

"Some of the other smaller private colleges and universities haven't said anything about it," he said. "I'm cautiously optimistic that it will pass."

A bill similar to SB 153 has been before the Massachusetts Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight since January. Introduced by Sen. Jarrett Barrious (D-Middlesex), SB 1735 specifies that university and college campus police officers must disclose "all records, reports or other documentary materials or data made or received." Massachusett's legislative term ends in late July.

The bill accompanies a case similar to Mercer University's. The Harvard Crimson student newspaper filed a lawsuit against the school in 2003 for access to 10 police files. A trial judge dismissed the case in March 2004, and the newspaper appealed. A hearing before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, the state's highest court, was scheduled for Fall 2005.

reports, Spring 2005