OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) - The University of California refuses to release a government study of organized crime in the 1940s and '50s, the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press claims in court.
Joined by University of Iowa professor Stephen Bloom, the Reporters Committee asked Alameda County Court to order the release of the Special Crime Study Commission on Organized Crime, which is housed in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.
The records fill 30 cartons, and according to the library's catalog are closed to research until 2028.
The Crime Study Commission, appointed in 1947 by Gov. Earl Warren, was charged with exploring organized crime in California, particularly crimes involving gambling, racketeering and prostitution. At the time, it was the largest of its kind ever undertaken in California.
The commission worked for 32 months and produced four reports.
UC-Berkeley acquired the records through an unknown person who gave the records to the university instead of to the California State Archives, the primary repository for state government records.
Katie Townsend, counsel for the Reporters Committee, told Courthouse News in an interview that the reason for this choice by the donor is unclear.
"Even though these documents are old, and even though these public records have fallen outside of government hands, it's important to recognize that they're still public records," Townsend said.
"So it's important for the public to have access to them and that they be treated like public records, regardless of what happens to them in the interim."
When Adam Marshall, the Jackson Nelson Legal Fellow for the Reporters Committee, requested access to the commission's records from the Bancroft Library, a librarian told him that access was restricted due to confidentiality concerns.
Marshall subsequently sent a Public Records Act request to the university. His request was denied by LeVale Simpson, the university's public records coordinator, who said that the records were "not 'public records' as defined by the California Public Records Act" and were therefore exempt from disclosure.
"This is a, quite frankly, ludicrous interpretation of the Public Records Act," Townsend said.
Townsend said it does not appear that the university made any effort to examine the commission's records to determine whether they are exempt from the Public Records Act.
"We're talking 30 cartons of documents," she said. "I suppose I'm speculating here, but the real issue is that they haven't looked at these documents and so made no effort to segregate the documents that are exempt from the ones that aren't."
Professor Bloom said in a telephone interview that he hoped to gain access to the records for scholarly research.
He said the university is not disclosing how it came to acquire the commission's records, nor has it disclosed why it has "arbitrarily" sealed them.
"We think that's wrong, and we think that the public would be better served with opening the records," Bloom said. "I can't imagine why the public would be put in harm's way by finding out the contents."
UC-Berkeley's public records office could not be reached for comment.
Marshall said in an interview that the records' release is of significant historical importance.
"These are records going back to the '40s and '50s, which was a tumultuous time for California," he said. "And the nature of the commission was unprecedented at the time."
Townsend said that the Reporters Committee does not take issue with the fact that the records were donated to the university rather than to the state archives.
"It's not like the university is a bad place for there to be public records," she said.
"It's just that the university needs to comply with the Public Records Act."
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