Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Harvard paper loses bid for police records

I finally had an opportunity today to read last week's disappointing decision from the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, The Harvard Crimson Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, denying a request by Harvard's student newspaper to obtain incident reports and other records from the Harvard University police department.

Under Massachusetts law, some Harvard police officers have been designated "special state police officers," an appointment made by the colonel of the State Police. Some officers also serve as deputy sheriffs for the county. In light of these designations, the Crimson argued that records of the Harvard police were public under the state's public records law.

Saying that it would construe strictly the scope of the public records law, the SJC rejected the Crimson's argument.
"The public records law, and its implementing regulations, are applicable to documents held by public entities, not private ones. Simply put, Harvard University is a private institution, a fact not challenged by the Crimson. ... It follows, therefore, that records in the custody of the HUPD, a department within Harvard University, are not "public records" that fall within the ambit of [the law]."
The decision is disappointing for its strict interpretation of the law. Other states, most notably Florida, have stated that they will liberally apply their open government laws. The SJC could easily have done so here. The court, itself, notes the somewhat anomalous fact that Massachusetts law expressly provides that Harvard's police logs are to be maintained as public records.

The Crimson may still find recourse in the state legislature. A bill has been filed that would make these records public. HB 3449 provides:
"All records, reports or other documentary materials or data made or received by such employees so appointed as special state police officers shall be public records kept and maintained in the custody of such college, university, other educational institution or hospital, except as otherwise provided by law."
In October, the bill was reported favorably by the legislature's Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security and is now with the House Committee on Ways and Means.

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