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Nashville Victim Advocates Fight Release of Shooter's Writings

Dozens of family members of the victims of a March school shooting in Nashville want a judge to bar public release of the shooter’s handwritten journals and other information in what is shaping up as the latest test of the public's right to know about mass shooting victims' deaths, the New York Times reports. A group including The Tennessean newspaper, the Tennessee Firearms Association — whose legal effort is backed by the conservative group Judicial Watch — and a state senator say release of the information is required under state public records laws. The City of Nashville and its police department say the writings’ release could endanger an ongoing investigation. The families, school and church say that the release would deepen the survivors’ pain, and could encourage copycat attacks. The judge, Chancellor I’Ashea L. Myles of the Chancery Court in Tennessee’s Davidson County, has called the battle “uncharted territory,” while ruling that the families have standing in the case. The news outlets and organizations are appealing that decision, which has delayed a hearing before Chancellor Myles, originally scheduled for this summer, likely until at least the fall.

The public-information fight stems from the March 27 shooting death of six people, including three 9-year-olds, at the Covenant School. “There is no compelling state interest in giving voice to a horrendous criminal,” the parents said in recent court filings. “It is certainly true that oftentimes mass shooters are learning and taking their cues from past incidents, strategies and manifestoes,” said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which encourages new approaches to reporting on violence and conflict. “But as a journalist devoted to reporting that makes mass shootings less likely, I fear that states or courts blocking access to basic evidence, facts and background about these acts of brutality could lead us to ineffectual, inappropriate or dangerous policies.” The same debate convulsed Connecticut a decade ago, after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Fearful that photos of the victims would be publicized, the families circulated a petition and rallied in Hartford for legislation that would prevent the release of photos, video or other digital recordings depicting any victim without permission from the immediate family. Opponents fought in court for five years before winning access to information about the shooter that had been gathered by state police. The legislation was subsequently scaled back. Yet even today those requesting Connecticut homicide-related records must demonstrate that the release does not constitute an “unwarranted invasion of privacy.”


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