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Judge Rules Against Release of Covenant School Shooter’s Writings


Judge Rules Against Release of Covenant School Shooter’s Writings

A Nashville judge late Thursday refused to allow the publication of writings left behind by the assailant who killed six people at a Christian school in the city last year, siding with the wishes of the families of surviving children.

The question of whether to publish the journals and other documents left behind by the assailant in the attack, in March 2023, has been at center of an emotional legal dispute, and the ruling appears all but guaranteed to be appealed.

On one side, grieving parents, most of the families of surviving students, the school and its affiliated church warned that facilitating unfettered access to the writings would further traumatize their community, and risk inspiring copycats.

But journalists, gun rights groups and a Republican state lawmaker argued that public records law required their release, particularly as the Tennessee General Assembly remains deeply 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 immediate information has also become a societal expectation which we all share.”

“However, there are occasions when this immediate access to and demand for information must be balanced and moderated to safeguard the integrity of our legal system, particularly the criminal legal system,” she said.

The judge ruled that a police investigative report on the shooting could be released when it is completed, except for details about the school’s security.

The police have not identified a clear motive the shooting, though they have said that the assailant, a 28-year-old former student of the school, had been receiving treatment for an emotional disorder and had “considered the actions of other mass murderers.”

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

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

The subsequent legal battle has stretched on for months, prolonged in part by a procedural argument over whether the families, the school and the church had a right to intervene after news outlets, gun rights groups and a Republican state senator sued for the release of the writings.

“We keep hearing this phrase, ‘We don’t want someone speaking from the grave,’” Douglas R. Pierce, a lawyer for the National Police Association, a national nonprofit supportive of gun rights, told the court in April. The shooter, he added, “is not going to do anything to anyone else now, but we can learn valuable lessons from those documents.”

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

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

Those opposed to publishing the writings, however, said that the leaks proved that any release would raise the prominence of the shooter, and allow the writings to spread.

“This opinion is an important first step to making sure the killer can’t hurt our babies anymore,” said Dr. Erin Kinney, whose 9-year-old son, Will, was one of three third-graders killed in the shooting. “The importance is even more clear due to the leaking of stolen police documents, which has violated our parental right to protect our traumatized and grieving children from material that could destroy their lives.”

Lawyers and pro-First Amendment advocates have argued against further weakening the state’s public records laws, especially after Covenant School families successfully lobbied for the passage of a law that limits access to autopsy records of children.

The debate over the writings took an unexpected turn last summer when the parents of the assailant, as the closest surviving relatives, signed over legal ownership of the writings to the families of surviving students. Lawyers for the families argued in court that this decision also granted them copyright ownership of the papers, an argument that proved pivotal in the case.

To allow “allow public inspection, display or copying of the original materials,” including the shooter’s writings, journals, art, photos and videos, Chancellor Myles wrote, “would violate and conflict with the exclusive federal rights granted to copyright owners.”

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

“If we’re getting to the language and the intent of both the Constitution and the statute, some things are upsetting,” Chancellor Myles said. She added, “I don’t know that I can protect everyone from things that they don’t like, and things that will harm them.”

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

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