ACLU of Massachusetts Files Lawsuit on Behalf of Harvard Newspaper Seeking Release of Campus Police Records

July 29, 2003 12:00 am

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CAMBRIDGE, MA – The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and The Harvard Crimson filed a lawsuit today to force Harvard University to release campus police records, calling the lawsuit a landmark case for accountability of police departments at private universities in Massachusetts and possibly in other states as well.

“”We hope to lift the veil of secrecy obscuring the true nature of crime at Harvard and other private universities,”” said Crimson President Amit R. Paley. “”Without these records, it is impossible to fully evaluate important issues such as the scope of sexual assault, student suicides and racial profiling on campus.””

Harvard, like many private universities, operates a full-service police department that functions in exactly the same manner as a municipal police force, the ACLU said in legal papers. Harvard police officers carry firearms and are empowered to stop, question, detain and even formally arrest any individual in Massachusetts. The Harvard officers possess deputy sheriff powers in Middlesex and Suffolk counties and are sworn special state police officers. But unlike other police forces, Harvard claims its police department is exempt from public records laws that permit the public to see reports created by individual police officers.

The only relevant exemptions to the public records law are for records used in ongoing law enforcement investigations and highly personal information may be deleted. Harvard refuses to disclose any police records-even those relating to incidents that are long in the past and unconnected to any current investigation, the ACLU said.

“”Our state freedom of information laws encourage disclosure of records made by government agents, and Harvard’s police officers, acting as deputy sheriffs and special state police, are not free to keep these records secret,”” said Amber R. Anderson of the law firm Dechert LLP, who is handling the case as a volunteer attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts.

The ACLU also said that because of the public powers bestowed upon Harvard police officers by the state police and the sheriffs’ offices, any records they create are public under the Massachusetts Public Records Law.

The Harvard Crimson, the nation’s oldest continually published college newspaper, is the independent daily paper of the Harvard University community. Founded in 1873 and entirely student-run, The Crimson has won numerous national journalism awards and is widely considered America’s preeminent college newspaper.

“”This case is about the public’s right to know what armed police officers in our community are doing. Gaining access to these public records is part of the system of checks and balances necessary to ensure proper accountability of the police,”” Paley added.

The case, The Harvard Crimson v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, was filed in Middlesex Superior Court. The legal complaint is online at /node/34966

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