July 12th, 2024

Judge says Nashville school shooter’s writings can’t be released as victims’ families have copyright

By Travis Loller, The Associated Press on July 5, 2024.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – The writings of the person who killed three 9-year-olds and three adults at a private Christian elementary school in Nashville last year cannot be released to the public, a judge ruled Thursday.

Chancery Court Judge I’Ashea Myles found that The Covenant School children and parents hold the copyright to any writings or other works created by shooter Audrey Hale, a former student who was killed by police. Hale’s parents inherited the works and then transferred ownership to the families.

Myles ruled that “the original writings, journals, art, photos and videos created by Hale” are subject to an exception to the Tennessee Public Records Act created by the federal Copyright Act.

The ruling comes more than a year after several groups filed public records requests for documents seized by Metro Nashville Police during their investigation into the March 2023 shooting.

The shooter left behind at least 20 journals, a suicide note and a memoir, according to court filings. When the records requests were denied, several parties sued, and the situation quickly ballooned into a messy mix of conspiracy theories, leaked documents, probate battles and accusations of ethical misconduct. Myles’ order will almost surely be appealed.

After the initial records requests last year, police said they would eventually release the documents but could not do so right away because their investigation was still open. The groups suing for the immediate release of the records – including news outlets, a gun rights group, a law enforcement nonprofit and Tennessee state Sen. Todd Gardenhire – argued that there was no meaningful criminal investigation underway since Hale, who police say acted alone, was dead.

Meanwhile, a group of Covenant parents was allowed to intervene in the case and argue that the records should never become public. They said the release would be traumatic for the families and could inspire copycat attacks.

As part of the effort to keep the records closed, Hale’s parents transferred ownership of Hale’s property to the parents’ group. Attorneys for the parents then argued they owned the copyright, further reason the records could not be released.

Also intervening in the case were The Covenant School and the Covenant Presbyterian Church, which shares a building. They argued the records should remain closed because their release could threaten their security.

The Associated Press is among the groups that requested the records but did participate in the lawsuit.

Part of the interest in the records stems from the fact that Hale, who police say was “assigned female at birth,” may have identified as a transgender man. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, of Missouri, is among those who have promoted a theory that the shooting was a hate crime against Christians. The delay in releasing the writings fueled speculation – particularly in conservative circles – over what they might contain and conspiracy theories about why police wouldn’t immediately release them.

As the court case has dragged on, pages from one journal were leaked to a conservative commentator who posted them to social media in November. More recently, The Tennessee Star published dozens of stories based on allegedly 80 pages of Hale’s writings provided by an unnamed source. The publication is among the plaintiffs, and Myles briefly threatened to hold the paper’s editor-in-chief, Michael Leahy, and owner, Star News Digital Media, in contempt.

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