January 24, 2006

Crimson sues school over police records

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling against the Harvard Crimson student newspaper on January 13 concluded almost three years of litigation between the paper, Harvard University, and the Harvard Police Department (HUPD). The lawsuit challenged the fact that public records laws did not apply to Harvard’s privately funded police department, which reportedly withheld documents and information from Crimson reporters.

At the same time, campus publications nationwide have reflected on their own relationships with privately run police departments that find protection from public information laws.

“This represents a serious national problem because campus police forces operate similarly across the country,” said Laura Schuker, Crimson president, in a statement after the court’s decision. “The failure of HUPD to allow access to its records compromises our ability to investigate and report on issues of sexual assault and racial profiling, among other matters on the Harvard campus.”

Schuker and her colleagues at the Crimson argued that the privately funded HUPD should be treated as any other police department, which must provide detailed information on crime and police reports under public records laws of Massachusetts.

Student journalists at Taylor University and Cornell University have taken their own cases against university police forces to court, but have met similar challenges with how the law defines a public or private organization. Both Taylor and Cornell have privately funded police forces that would not grant journalists access to their records, according to the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit organization that provides resources for student journalists.

At the University of Chicago, student journalists have faced similar relationships with the privately run U of C Police Department (UCPD), though not to such an extent as Harvard or Cornell.

“Regarding the policy on records, I have never heard of that question being discussed here,” said Larry Arbeiter, director of University Relations. “That doesn’t mean that no one ever raised it, but if they did, it never reached my radar screens.”

According to Arbeiter, the UCPD falls under the jurisdiction of the University’s Office of Community Affairs.

“I know of no request we have had regarding open-records issues,” said Hank Webber, vice president for Community and Government Affairs.

As in the Crimson lawsuit against Harvard, much of the discussion on public records and freedom of information has been left to each state’s legislation on the issue, with particular attention to the definition of “public bodies.”

According to Massachusetts court documents, the January 13 ruling sided with Harvard’s status as a “private educational institution” and that its police officers “shall have the same power to make arrests as regular police officers for any criminal offense committed in or upon lands or structures owned” by Harvard.

Schuker noted in a statement that the HUPD “is endowed with the powers of a public police force, including the power to arrest, but it does not comply with the rules of public reporting that police forces do.” According to Schuker, the implications of student journalists’ relations with university police constituted a “serious national problem.”

Despite disappointment, Schuker expressed the Crimson’s ongoing efforts to aid the cause of student journalism. “This coming spring, we will work with the Massachusetts legislature on amending the public records act,” Schuker said.