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Activist Fights for Access to Library

Harvard Law School’s Langdell Library, lit up at night, is the subject of a legal dispute between Richard Max Strahan and the University.
Harvard Law School’s Langdell Library, lit up at night, is the subject of a legal dispute between Richard Max Strahan and the University.
By Nicholas M. Ciarelli, Contributing Writer

Richard Max Strahan calls himself a “citizen attorney general.” Without a lawyer, he files rounds of lawsuits against the government to press for environmental causes. The New York Times says the activist has been arrested 130 times in his fight to save whales, while the Boston Globe says he inspired a big-screen movie character played by Joe Pesci in the Harvard-based film “With Honors.”

But this year, Strahan has taken on Harvard University, protesting his 2001 arrest and ejection from the Harvard Law School (HLS) Library with a lawsuit against it. A hearing in the case is scheduled for Jan. 6, 2005.

Since January, Harvard and Strahan have grappled back and forth in a legal exchange: Strahan argues that he has the right to access the HLS Library because its federal depository is open to the public, while the University contends that its grounds are private property and that Strahan was violating an existing trespass warning against him.

Strahan says that on January 20, 2001, he was conducting research for his environmental group GreenWorld at a computer terminal at the HLS Library; he was then approached by a Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) officer who asked to see identification, then forced him to his feet and against a wall before frisking and handcuffing him, he says. The officers then arrested Strahan for trespassing and said he was not allowed in the library again.

“I was told that homeless people were not allowed on the grounds of Harvard University,” Strahan says. “I told them that I was insulted by their insane remarks...I told them that I was not homeless and even had a job.”

After being released from custody the next day, Strahan contacted the library and was told that because of the arrest and a University-wide ban, he was no longer welcome there. HUPD Chief Francis Riley and University General Counsel Robert Iuliano refused to “resolve any differences between us,” he says.

In January 2004, Strahan filed a lawsuit with the Superior Court for Middlesex County, naming as defendants Harvard Law School, Iuliano, Riley, and several HUPD officers. The suit asks for relief on seven counts, including violation of the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act and false arrest.

Strahan’s suit says he is filing the action to “protect his right and opportunity of equal access” to the law library. He maintains that the public “enjoys full access” to the library because of its membership in the Federal Depository Library Program, which maintains publicly accessible collections of government documents at member libraries.

Strahan also says the library contains a public reception area accessible to visitors outside of the library’s stacks; this reception area includes a study room where visitors can eat food, talk, or use computers, Strahan says, adding that in some cases, he would conduct research from the terminals without registering to access the depository collection. It was at these terminals he was arrested in January 2001.

“The staff...never objected to my [using the terminals],” he says in the suit. “I never saw them object to anyone else doing so.” In the suit, he maintains that he’s used the depository collection for years to conduct policy research as part of his work filing lawsuits against government agencies, and says he’s been a “respectful and cooperative” user of the library who has never drawn complaints from library staff.

By banning Strahan from all of its property, the University is attempting to prevent him from waging a civil action against them for the arrest, Strahan says. He calls the University’s actions an attempt to “coerce him from enjoying his rights under federal and state law” to use the library.


The University and HUPD declined to comment in light of the ongoing litigation. But in March 2004, the University filed a response in court answering Strahan’s complaints. And in an October 2004 motion, it asked the court for a summary judgment as well as dismissal and a judgment on the pleadings.

In a more than 40-page memorandum supporting its motion, the University says Strahan, when he was arrested at the HLS Library, was already subject to a no-trespress order that it issued in July 2000 after he was found in the computer room of the Science Center without a Harvard ID.

According to the HUPD report for the library arrest, Strahan was found sleeping at a library computer terminal, and, after having been woken up, “become visibly agitated and spoke in an unusually loud tone of voice” while responding to questions about his identification. Asked to put down a pen he was holding, Strahan refused, at which point the HUPD officer removed the pen from his hand. According to the arrest report, Strahan began moving his hand toward his backpack, so the officer helped him to his feet and handcuffed him.

After arrival at 29 Garden St. for booking, Strahan complained about wrist pain from the handcuffs so HUPD took him to the hospital; there he received x-rays and a clean bill of health. According to the HUPD report, Strahan afterward asked an officer if he was wearing a vest, then asked, “What was the history of Harvard police officers getting shot at?”

The University contends in the report that the arrest was reasonable given the existing trespass warning. The University also cites past court decisions to argue that despite the presence of a government depository, it can ban people from its property and facilities. And even if Harvard was a place of public accommodation, the University says, it “had good cause to exclude the plaintiff.”


Strahan disputes the University’s argument, saying the trespass warning was never authorized by President Lawrence H. Summers or the Board of Overseers. Citing his previous use of the library, Strahan calls the trespass statute a “very primitive legal instrument” and says the University’s contract with the government to provide a depository nullifies any such right to keep out the public.

Strahan says case law concerning university-run depositories is on his side. “You can’t stop [public access], period, without a court order.”

Asked whether he disagrees with the arrest report’s contention that he was sleeping in the library, Strahan calls the point immaterial, since “students sleep at the library all the time.”

Strahan’s argument hinges upon the fact that the HLS Library contains a federal depository, which is open to the public. The website for HLS Library says that it is “obligated by law to provide free access” to its collection of U.S. government documents.

He was not, however, registered to use the depository while he used a computer terminal in the reading room.

But Strahan says he feels he ought to have access to the entire library in which the federal depository is housed and that librarians have traditionally let anyone into the reading room.

Like other libraries, the HLS depository has a separate sign-in procedure for the public.

Beth Brainard, spokeswoman for the Harvard College Library, which runs Lamont Library—site of the other government depository on campus—says that members of the public can show a photo ID and sign in at the door; the visitors generally consist of academics from other institutions. While Brainard stresses that for privacy reasons the library does not keep a count of who uses the library, she observes that in general, a small percentage of the library’s users, approximately 10 percent, come from outside Harvard.

But once someone signs into Lamont Library, although they technically are given access only to the government documents, the building layout means that it’s difficult for Harvard to restrict their access to the rest of the facility. “It’s pretty much on the honor system,” Brainard said.


Strahan stresses that his central dispute is with employees involved in the trespass warning and arrest, rather than Harvard.

A hearing for the University’s motion for a summary judgment is now slated for January 6, 2005. Strahan, who is representing himself, signs his legal documents “Pro Se and Proud!” He says he feels Middlesex county court is too connected to Harvard, so he may move the case to a western Massachusetts or federal court, if necessary.

Strahan says the legal research he does at the libraries is in the public interest. “I’m the only person who brings endangered species protection lawsuits,” Strahan says, calling the access issue a challenge to the “total freedoms and deals that go to the heart of our society.

“They can’t throw this case out for nothing,” he says. “I’m not going to be shut down.”

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