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Massachusetts’ top court ruled Friday that Harvard’s police department
is not required to release incident reports sought by The Crimson
because it is a private police force.
Two-and-a-half years after the case was first filed by the paper, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled unanimously for Harvard, rejecting The Crimson’s claim that since the Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) is endowed with “special state police powers”—such as the power to make an arrest and obtain and execute a search warrant—it must provide the same information as public police forces.
Harvard has maintained that it has a compelling interest in withholding incident reports to protect students’ privacy. Though the Court never mentions students’ privacy, the ruling reaffirms HUPD’s practice of not releasing such reports. The practice allows HUPD to protect the names of students in cases when it does not make an arrest.
The Court also rejected The Crimson’s claims that private entities, once endowed with certain state powers, become public entities. Instead, the Court held that although it is granted special powers, HUPD does not become “an agency of the Commonwealth such that it becomes subject to the mandates of the public records law.”
In maintaining the distinction between HUPD and public police forces, Justice Francis X. Spina, writing for the court, explained that the appointment of “special state police powers” is specifically reserved for members of “educational institutions.”
The opinion also highlighted three key differences between those granted “special state police powers” and public police forces. “Special state police powers” are “far less extensive” than those of regular police officers, the court noted.
Those powers are granted to individuals, not whole security forces. And “special state police officers” serve for three years, whereas regular police officers’ terms are not limited.
Robert W. Iuliano ’83, Harvard’s general counsel, praised the decision in a statement Friday for recognizing the University’s interest in preserving students’ privacy and highlighting HUPD’s practice of releasing crime reports whenever an arrest is made.
In a hearing before the SJC in November, Iuliano argued that the University has a compelling interest in withholding the names of students who have encounters with HUPD but are not arrested. HUPD often responds to noise complaints, underage drinking, and reports of “suspicious activity” without making arrests. Those incidents appear as brief blurbs on the department’s police log without identifying the individuals involved.
Crimson President Lauren A. E. Schuker ’06 expressed her disappointment with the decision in a statement Friday. But she vowed to continue The Crimson’s effort by working with Massachusetts State Senator Jarrett T. Barrios ’90 to pass legislation introduced in 2004 that would require university police departments to disclose more detailed reports.
“The current law, requiring campus state police departments to issue daily logs, was enacted thanks to the hard work of The Crimson, so we are following in historical footsteps continuing this fight,” the statement read.
Beyond relying on legislative measures, “we will also be looking with interest to court decisions in other states,” said Crimson lawyer Frances S. Cohen who argued the case in November. “I think this really an area of the law that is evolving.”
The Court’s ruling on the case ends a legal battle that began in late July 2003. Middlesex Superior Court Justice Nancy Staffier originally heard the suit and dismissed it in March 2004.
—Staff writer Benjamin L. Weintraub can be reached at email@example.com.
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