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    Judge Orders Mercer University to Turn Over Crime Records

    The Mercer University Police Department’s Web siteencourages students and staff members to report ‘anythingsuspicious’ to a campus hot line. But how much informationcan they obtain about crimes at the university?

    Not enough, says Amanda A. Farahany, an Atlanta lawyerrepresenting a former Mercer student who claims she was raped onthe Macon, Ga., campus in 2000. While preparing her case againstthe university last year, Ms. Farahany asked Mercer for campuspolice documents going back to 1995, including incident reports,radio dispatch logs, contact-person reports, and information aboutparticular sexual assaults.

    A federal law known as the Clery Act requires colleges tomaintain a public crime log, listing the nature, time, date,location, and disposition of each incident. But the law does notcompel institutions to make available more-detailed informationabout campus crimes and police investigations.

    After Mercer refused to turn over its records, Ms. Farahanyfiled a separate complaint against the university in November thatsought the release of the documents under Georgia’sopen-records law. Mercer countered that the open-records law didnot apply to private institutions and that its police force was nota public agency.

    But last month a Georgia state-court judge ruled that Mercermust turn over the records because the university serves’public functions’ by employing sworn police officerswho carry guns and have the power to make arrests just likemunicipal police officers.

    The ruling, apparently the first of its kind, is the latestdevelopment in a continuing debate over the proper balance betweencompeting institutional concerns –‘ students’ right toprivacy and their right to information about their surroundings.Advocates for greater access to campus crime information hope thedecision strengthens the case of student journalists who are suingHarvard University to obtain its police records.

    S. Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security on Campus, anonprofit watchdog group that monitors crime at colleges, says theMercer ruling affirms that private colleges ‘should not begiven a pass’ on disclosing crime information.

    Exempting private colleges from open-records laws, Mr. Cartersays, gives them ‘incentive to operate their policedepartments as a black hole, where crime can be dealt withprivately, without the public being able to be aware of extent ofcrime on the campus.’

    In a legal brief filed last December, Mercer had contended thatas a private corporation it was not a public office or agency thatwas subject to the Georgia Open Records Act.

    Furthermore, Mercer’s lawyers argued that theuniversity’s police officers derive their power from theuniversity, not the state: ‘The requirement that Mercerpolicemen be certified in accordance with [state standards] beforeexercising such powers does not make these officers agents of thestate.’

    Superior Court Judge L.A. McConnell Jr. rejected thosearguments. In his ruling, filed this month in the Superior Court ofBibb County, Judge McConnell wrote that in determining whetherrecords held by a private entity were subject to open-records law,the ‘focus … is not on the actor but on the particular,discrete function performed by that actor.’

    He concluded that Mercer police officers performed public dutiesby enforcing state laws, maintaining public order, and preventingand investigating crimes.

    Although Mercer had described documents pertaining to sexualassaults as ‘sensitive and private’ in its brief, JudgeMcConnell ruled that ‘the public’s interest in safetyand in the transparency of public affairs outweighs Mercer’sinterest in protecting the privacy of the university and itsstudents.’

    The judge did concede in his ruling that it was necessary todelete names and addresses of victims of sexual assaults from thedocuments.

    A spokeswoman for Mercer said university officials would notcomment on the case. Mercer’s lawyers have filed an appeal inthe Georgia Court of Appeals.

    As in the Mercer case, Harvard officials cite privacy concernsin explaining their refusal to release detailed police records.

    Last summer The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, filed alawsuit against the university to get access to complete crimerecords after Harvard refused to turn over documents the newspaperhad requested.

    The Crimson contends that the limited information in police logshad prevented reporters from fully investigating and reporting onincidents of public interest, including alleged embezzlement by twostudents.

    Yet Harvard officials have said that releasing the detailedcrime records could reveal personal information about students thatwould violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, whichprotects student privacy. Harvard also argues that its policedepartment is exempt from the public-records laws because theuniversity is a private institution.

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