WITH NO public records law to fall back on, campus newspapers and the public are powerless to get detailed information about crimes at private universities and colleges. It’s time for the Legislature to shine some light on the dark corners of campuses.
Federal law requires all colleges — public and private — to provide aggregate crime statistics. The intent was to stop colleges from covering up crimes on campus. Massachusetts went a step further by requiring campus police to provide the public with log entries containing basic information on crimes and arrests. Now, advocates for greater transparency are pushing a bill that would give the public access to full arrest reports by campus police.
Detailed reports would provide better understanding of a crime and its potential impact on public safety. Such reports fall under the state’s public records law and are available, therefore, from campus police at public colleges such as the University of Massachusetts. But private colleges have resisted efforts to follow suit, most notably in 2006 when the Supreme Judicial Court shot down efforts by Harvard’s student newspaper to secure the documents.
The Legislature can and should extend the law to cover private institutions. Criminal activity on campus is of legitimate interest to neighbors, who live cheek by jowl with students. Campus police officers at private universities enjoy state-sanctioned arrest powers. Their reports should be accessible to the public. And public-safety incidents on a private campus deserve no less scrutiny than those at a public university.
The Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts is concerned that extending the law would have a chilling effect. A distraught student, for example, might fail to call for help if the report could end up in the campus paper. Extending the law, according to the association, could also discourage campus health care providers from sharing information with law enforcement.
Such concerns are overblown. The public records law already provides exemptions to protect both health privacy and the integrity of ongoing investigations. Massachusetts residents know about the great things that take place on the college campuses at their doorsteps. They need to know about the darker side, too.