New Georgia law opens crime records at private colleges; Massachusetts legislation falls short

By Whitney McFerron, SPLC staff writer

GEORGIA -- Gaining access to campus crime records has often been an arduous task for journalists at private colleges and universities, but some states are taking steps to make all campus police departments subject to open records laws.On the last day of its session this year, the Georgia Legislature passed a bill that will provide journalists in the state with all new access to crime records at private colleges and universities, student press advocates say. Similar legislation in Massachusetts also cleared a significant hurdle this year by passing in the state Senate, but the bill died in the House at the end of the legislative session on July 31.Georgia's new lawThe Georgia legislation marks one of the first attempts in the nation to make opening detailed police records mandatory at private colleges and universities. All private and public institutions that receive any form of federal funding are already required under the Clery Act to release certain basic information about crimes that occur on campus. The new law in Georgia, however, will require campus police to release more detailed information, such as arrest records and incident reports, to journalists and other members of the public upon request. Carolyn Carlson, a Georgia State University professor who is also the co-chair of the Society of Professional Journalists' campus crime subcommittee, said the Georgia law will give journalists in the state new access to information that had previously been readily available only at public institutions.''Prior to this law, private campuses were the only place in our society where police departments were able to operate outside of the public view,'' Carlson said. ''So this opens up what I think is the last bastion of secrecy in the police world to public scrutiny, and that's important.''Carlson said the law passed the Georgia General Assembly on March 30 as a last-minute rider amendment within another bill that primarily regulates street gang violence. Because it went into effect July 1, experts are still not exactly sure how some exemptions and protections within state open records laws will apply to the new law.S. Daniel Carter, senior vice president of the campus crime watchdog organization Security on Campus, said the Georgia Open Records Act includes an exemption that allows officers to withhold some crime information that is deemed part of an ongoing investigation. ''There are a number of potentially unanswered questions that may need to be revisited now that the law is on the books,'' Carter said. ''But we're generally pleased that students at private colleges are going to get the same information that people at public colleges get and any other member of the community is entitled to where they live.''The Georgia legislation was introduced in 2005 as a result of a court battle involving Mercer University, a private institution in Macon, Ga. In 2003, an Atlanta law firm that represented a student who alleged she was the victim of a sexual assault on campus sued the university because the campus police department refused to provide records of sexual assaults on campus. After a state circuit court originally decided that the records should be made public, a court of appeals ruled in February 2005 that Mercer did not have to release the crime reports. The state Supreme Court declined to hear the case.Mercer University Police Chief Gary Collins directed requests for comment to the university's public relations department. Collins said he was aware of the bill, but did not know it had passed. Judith Lunsford, associate vice president for university relations, also said she was unaware the bill had passed, but later, she released a statement from Mercer president William Underwood, which read:''We think the legislation is appropriate and strikes a proper balance between the public's right to know and student privacy concerns. Mercer University has always complied fully with the law and will continue to do so.'' At Emory University, a private school in Atlanta, University Police Chief Craig Watson said his department did not do anything to prepare for the new law before it took effect. ''There's really little for us to do to prepare,'' Watson said. ''It's not a major change from the way we've operated for a long time. While we were not subject to the open records law, we have always worked on the philosophy of trying to abide by the spirit of the law.''Rachel Zelkowitz, news editor of The Emory Wheel, said that in the past, the newspaper has not had problems with gaining access to crime information from the Emory police, but she sees how the new law could be beneficial at other schools.''I think that anything that supports the free and open distribution of information is a good thing,'' she said. Failure in MassachusettsLegislation similar to the new Georgia law has been in the works in Massachusetts since 2004, but once again this year it failed to gain enough support to get through the state Legislature. Like in Georgia, the proposed Massachusetts legislation was the result of a lawsuit against a private university in the state. In 2003, student journalists from The Harvard Crimson at Harvard University sued the school after campus police refused to provide them with crime records. The state Supreme Court ruled in January that Harvard police records were not subject to state open records laws.Alice Wolf, the state representative that sponsored the bill in the House this year and whose district encompasses Harvard University, said she decided to introduce the bill after speaking with some concerned students from The Harvard Crimson. ''There is no reason why that -- just because these are private colleges but they have people who have been approved as state police officers -- they should not follow the same rules as everybody else,'' she said.Wolf said she likely will file the bill again in the House next year, although she has not made a final decision. Andrew McInnes, who graduated in the spring from Boston University, is the government affairs specialist with Safe Campus Initiative, an organization made up of students at Massachusetts' private colleges that has lobbied for the bill. He said he still hopes that the group's efforts will make a difference in Massachusetts and elsewhere.''We hope that people will begin to see what's been going on in Massachusetts, and -- whether it's students or legislatures or even the universities themselves -- they will take our lead in some sense and see that perhaps there is a problem that needs to be fixed and then make moves to fix it,'' he said. Virginia statuteIn addition to the Georgia law, Virginia also contains provisions in its state statutes that in some ways expand public access to crime records at private colleges.The Virginia codes require that state-authorized police departments at private colleges must open ''criminal incident information,'' which includes: - the date, time and general location of the alleged crime - a general description of injuries suffered or property damaged or stolen - the name and address of any individual arrested as a result of felonies committed against persons or property or misdemeanors involving assault, battery or moral turpitudeBut S. Daniel Carter, senior vice president of the campus crime watchdog organization Security on Campus, said the Virginia code stops short of explicitly opening all crime records.''The circumstances are similar, but I would still classify that Virginia law as more of an enhanced crime logs law than a specific expansion of the public records law to include police reports at private colleges and universities,'' Carter said. ''It tells them certain specific things they have to make public, certain classifications of information. It doesn't specifically say they have to make their police reports public. And I don't know how it's working in the field -- that may be the practical effect at some schools. But it's not the same.''Carter said the Virginia code is not as expansive as the law recently passed in Georgia or the proposed legislation in Massachusetts.''The Georgia law, which explicitly requires the full police report information to be made public, is the first law of it's kind in the country,'' Carter said. ''The Massachusetts one would be second, and of course it was the first one introduced of the two. But they both are really leading the nation on this.''

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