Thursday, June 09, 2005

Ga. case chills oversight

Can you think of anything else more of public interest than the way police who have a state charter perform thair jobs?

I can't, which is why this ruling from the Georgia courts just reinforces the fear I felt several months ago when, writing about Apple's lawsuits against bloggers divulging its secrets, I went on about the dangers for freedom of information that such rulings could have as government turns to private industry to provide more of its services. (That link goes to a clearly pro-privatization site run by the Reason Foundation. But even taking that into account, the numbers do tell a story.)

In the Georgia case (Via the SPJ Web site), Mercer University, which is private, refused to release police records, even though its police force has state sanction: (All emphasis mine.)

The litigation had stemmed from a suit in which a former student of the Macon, Ga., school claimed the school was responsible for her being sexually assaulted on campus by another student. Lawyers for the plaintiff learned that Mercer officials would not release police records on sexual assaults because, they claimed, they were not public records.

The law firm, Atlanta’s Barrett & Farahany, filed a separate suit asking a judge to declare whether the Georgia Open Records Act applied to police forces of private universities. Senior Judge Levis A. McConnell Jr. ruled for the plaintiffs, saying the records should be covered because the Mercer University Police Department performs public law enforcement duties and the officers are certified by the state.

In the appeals court ruling, a three-judge panel rejected McConnell’s reasoning and Barrett & Farahany’s “compelling” argument in support.

The statutory language simply does not provide this Court with the authority to compel entities that are private, but are granted the authority to perform public functions, to disclose their records,” Presiding Judge Edward H. Johnson wrote for the panel.

The judges acknowledged “the public benefit of requiring disclosure in a case such as this” and noted that the General Assembly required similar records to be disclosed by public police agencies. But extending coverage of the law to private police forces such as Mercers was “a matter best left for the Legislature to consider,” Johnson concluded.
SPJ is now working to get such a bill through the Georgia Legisature. But a bill shouldn't be needed because when the government gives its imprimateur to a function as important as policing, the public should have the same unfettered right as it does with a public agency to examine the private force's procedures and effectiveness.


At 6/19/05, 8:46 PM, Blogger Murley said...

The worst part of this is that Mercer is a religious organization, which should have a higher calling. From their web site:
"Mercer University is a church-related institution of higher learning that seeks to achieve excellence and scholarly discipline in the fields of liberal learning and professional knowledge. The University is guided by the historic principles of religious and intellectual freedom, while affirming religious and moral values that arise from the Judeo-Christian understanding of the world"

Seeking to keep secret sexual crimes reports on campus doesn't really fit well with that understanding, IMHO.


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