SUNSHINE WEEK: Legislatures in two states to consider opening campus police records

Fast facts on campus crime records

For more information, read the Student Press Law Center guide, "Covering Campus Crime: a Handbook for Journalists."

Legislatures in Massachusetts and Georgia are scheduled to vote next week on bills that would make all campus police departments in the two states subject to open records laws.

In Massachusetts, a three-year battle to force campus police at Harvard University to hand over crime-related documents will continue next week when the Massachusetts state Senate is scheduled to consider the bill.

If the bill passes in both houses, the legislation would override a January state Supreme Judicial Court decision that held that Harvard's campus police records are not subject to the state open records law because the university is a private entity.

Student journalists for The Harvard Crimson, the university's student-run newspaper, originally sued the university's police force in 2003 after they were denied access to campus police reports.

The newspaper's suit claimed that because officers in the Harvard University Police Department are able to make arrests and obtain and exercise search warrants, they are public officials subject to open records laws.

The student newspaper filed an appeal with the state's highest court after a state trial court dismissed the lawsuit.

A related effort in Georgia to require public access to campus police reports at private universities is gaining momentum and bipartisan support in the state Legislature.

Even when a lawsuit to access a university's police records hit a brick wall last year, a bill to make public the records of campus police at both private and public universities had already passed in the Georgia State Senate.

Now the state's House of Representatives is moving toward a favorable vote on Senate Bill 153, according to Dina Franch, a legislative aide for Sen. David Adelman, D-Decatur, who sponsored the bill.

The bill aims to "make records of educational facilities that employ campus policemen and that relate to such police duties, activities and functions open to inspection in the same manner as other records of public agencies," according to the bill's text.

Franch said the bill received a favorable report from a House committee in January and bipartisan support for the bill may move it toward a House vote in the last week of the legislative session, which ends next week.

"It's a bill that pretty much everyone supports," she said.

The legislative effort picked up steam in May 2005 after the Supreme Court of Georgia declined to review a lower court's ruling in a lawsuit to make Mercer University Police Department records open to the public. The decision ended a court battle that lasted more than a year.

The lawsuit was initially filed against the university on behalf of a female student who was sexually assaulted at a fraternity party. Her lawyers requested records of the police investigation of the incident, but police refused to release the records.

A state trial court sided with the student saying that under Georgia law, campus police at the private university are granted the same duties and powers as public police officers.

But the university appealed the lower court's decision. The appeals court ruled the university's police force was not a public entity under state open records laws, and did not have to turn over records.

Check the Student Press Law Center's Web site tomorrow to read some examples on how college journalists can use open records to write stories. The SPLC is running a story each day this week highlighting open records issues specific to student journalists in celebration of Sunshine Week.

Georgia, Massachusetts, news, Sunshine Week, The Harvard Crimson