Harvard's daily sues school, HUPD over crime records

by Richard Lazarus | 8/6/03 5:00am

Harvard's daily, student-run paper, The Crimson, sued Harvard and its police department last Tuesday for access to police records that Harvard University Police Department have always kept secret.

"As a society, we've always counted on the openness of records and, at times, the press to be a check on abuses of power," said Amber Anderson, one of the two lead lawyers on the action and an associate attorney at Dechert LLP in Boston. "The only time that works is when those records are available."

The Crimson sued when it became apparent that Harvard would never make its full records public without legal action, according to Anderson. Harvard maintained in a brief statement that its procedures are "sound and proper and in full compliance with the law."

The paper, which will be represented by the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union, takes the position that HUPD officers are no different than any police in the state of Massachusetts -- they are sworn in as Deputy Sheriffs by the two counties surrounding Boston and Cambridge, and have the power of arrest.

Massachusetts' Public Records Law, which is similar in function to the federal Freedom of Information Act, states that public agencies like police departments must provide records generated by public officials, according to Crimson President Amit Paley. If the court agrees, the main issue would be whether Harvard's police force is considered a public organization.

The Crimson first considered taking legal action to gain access to police records when investigating a story on racial profiling three years ago, according to Paley. It asked for records that detailed the people stopped in Harvard Square, but was denied access to them.

More recently, two Harvard students embezzled over $100,000. Again, HUPD denied the Crimson access to records of the crime, and since then HUPD's policy towards requests has not changed.

"I think Harvard would like to argue that because they're a private organization, all records created under the umbrella of Harvard University are private," Anderson said.

"However, police officers have powers that you and I don't have. And when they execute those powers ... to suspend others' rights, they need to be held accountable for that."

The Crimson currently publishes the police log issued by HUPD, but it is sparse on details and provides the names only of those who HUPD arrests.

Dartmouth's own Department of Safety and Security is considered a private security force, although they sometimes work with the Hanover Police Department. They are not sworn in as law enforcement officers and do not receive their training from the government.

Like the HUPD, Safety and Security publishes an incident log, but does not include names of suspects.

The logs are posted via Blitzmail bulletins and often do not come out until months past the dates when incidents occurred. For example, the last log published chronicled the events taking place during the week of Feb. 14, but was not posted until May 18.

New Hampshire ACLU Executive Director Claire Ebel said she did not know if her organization would accept a similar case, but raised concerns over the privacy of those whose records were released.

Paley said that his paper decided whether to print the names of victims and suspects in crimes on a case-by-case basis.

Harvard will have about two more weeks to respond to the Crimson's action, likely by either answering the complaint -- agreeing or disagreeing with the charges -- or by moving that the motion be dismissed.

Paley noted that the lawsuit was not out of any ill-will between the Crimson and HUPD, saying the two have a good working relationship. "This is, we think, an important issue for the media," he stated. "We have a first amendment obligation to let the community know what's going on.

"We really think it's in the best interest of the university to share these records," Otherwise, he said, "it gives the impression they have something to hide."

Dartmouth College General Counsel Robert Donin and College Proctor Harry Kinny could not be reached for comment.

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