Judge rules against release of Covenant school shooter’s writings

A Nashville judge on Thursday night refused to grant permission for the publication of writings left behind by the killer who killed six people at a Christian school in the city last year, deferring to the wishes of the families of the surviving children.

The question of whether to make public the diaries and other documents left behind by the attacker in March 2023 is the subject of an emotional legal dispute, and the ruling is likely to be appealed.

On the one hand, grieving parents, most of the families of the surviving students, warned the school and the affiliated church that making the writings freely available would further traumatize their community and risk attracting imitators.

However, journalists, gun rights groups and a Republican lawmaker argued that the open records law requires them to be made public, especially as the Tennessee General Assembly remains divided over how to respond to the shooting.

“School shootings and violence have unfortunately become commonplace in our society,” the judge, Chancellor I’Ashea L. Myles of the Chancery Court in Davidson County, Tenn., said in her ruling. “Access to instant information has also become a societal expectation that we all share.”

“However, there are situations where this direct access and demand for information must be balanced and moderated to ensure the integrity of our justice system, particularly the criminal justice system,” she said.

The judge ruled that a police investigation report into the shooting can be released once it is completed, except for details about the school’s security.

Police have not identified a clear motive for the shooting, although they have said the attacker, a 28-year-old former student of the school, was being treated for an emotional disorder and “had contemplated the actions of other mass murderers.”

Right-wing activists have focused on the gunman’s gender identity; police said the attacker identified as transgender but have not said that was a factor in the violence. Others, including some Covenant School families, have said the focus should instead be on tightening gun laws.

Police and city officials initially refused to release the writings, citing an ongoing investigation. Officers killed the attacker at the school within minutes of the first 911 calls.

The ensuing legal battle has dragged on for months, in part due to a procedural argument over whether the families, school and church had the right to intervene after news organizations, gun rights groups and a Republican senator filed a lawsuit seeking the release of the writings.

“We hear this phrase over and over again: ‘We don’t want anyone speaking from beyond the grave,'” Douglas R. Pierce, an attorney for the National Police Association, a national nonprofit that advocates for gun rights, told the court in April. The shooter, he added, “isn’t going to hurt anyone else now, but we can learn valuable lessons from those documents.”

When three pages of photos were leaked to a conservative political commentator last year, the excerpts revealed a hateful intent to target the school and its students. (An investigation “exhausted all available investigative avenues” to determine who shared the photos, police said, but did not identify any suspects.)

In June, more excerpts were published in The Tennessee Star, a conservative outlet.

However, opponents of the publication of the writings said the leaks proved that any disclosure would increase the shooter’s notoriety and further the spread of the writings.

“This opinion is an important first step in ensuring that the killer can no longer hurt our babies,” said Dr. Erin Kinney, whose 9-year-old son Will was one of three third-graders killed in the shooting. “The importance is made even clearer by the leak of stolen police documents, which violated our parental right to protect our traumatized and grieving children from material that could destroy their lives.”

Lawyers and First Amendment advocates have spoken out against further weakening of the state’s open records law, especially after Covenant School families successfully lobbied for passage of a law restricting access to children’s autopsy records.

The debate over the writings took an unexpected turn last summer when the attacker’s parents, as the closest surviving relatives, transferred legal ownership of the writings to the families of the surviving students. Lawyers for the families argued in court that the decision also gave them copyright in the papers, an argument that proved crucial in the case.

To “permit public inspection, display, or copying of the original materials,” including the shooter’s writings, diaries, art, photographs and videos, “would be a violation and conflict with the exclusive federal rights granted to copyright owners,” Chancellor Myles wrote.

During a two-day trial in April, Chancellor Myles made it clear that she was not only grappling with the grief of the community before her, but that she was also setting a legal precedent.

“When we talk about the language and the intent of both the Constitution and the statute, there are a number of things that are troubling,” Chancellor Myles said. She added, “I don’t know that I can protect everybody from things that they don’t like and things that are going to do them harm.”

“Before I become chancellor, I’m a human being, I’m also a mother,” she later told parents and relatives as she offered her condolences. But, she added, “I have to take the emotion out of it. I have to take out how I feel, and I have to interpret the law as written by the legislature.”

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