Parents of school shooting victims in Tennessee can seek a court order to keep the writings of the shooter from ever being released to the public, the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled on Thursday.
The parents, along with The Covenant School and Covenant Presbyterian Church, which shares a building with the school, all have a right to participate in a court case that will determine which police records can be released to the public, the Appeals Court ruled.
The public records case was brought by media groups, nonprofit organizations and a state senator. Those groups all requested police records from the March 27 shooting at the private Christian school in Nashville where three 9-year-old children and three adults were murdered. When police denied their Tennessee Public Records Act request, they sued.
The shooter left behind at least 20 journals, a suicide note and a memoir, according to court filings. Metro Nashville Police have said they will release the records, but not until the investigation is complete, which could take several more months.
Tennessee courts have found that law enforcement agencies can refuse to release records during an ongoing investigation. The groups that want the records released right away argue that the shooter is dead, so there can be no active investigation. But that issue has taken a back seat to the separate fight over who can be a party to the lawsuit.
Public records cases don't follow normal court rules. The Tennessee Public Records Act lays out a process for a quick resolution to disputes in which a government agency that denies a records request must appear in court to prove that they are withholding the records for a valid and legal reason. The statute does not mention intervenors, and attorneys for the groups seeking the records argue that intervenors should not be allowed.
The Appeals Court disagreed in its Thursday ruling, finding that nothing in the Tennessee Public Records Act forbids intervention by a third party. Although intervention has never been challenged before, the court pointed to intervenors in other public records cases, including one who testified before the Tennessee Supreme Court.
The case now goes back to the trial court for a ruling on what records can be released. The school and church want to make sure any records that could compromise the security of their building are kept private. The group of parents wants to keep all of the shooter's writings from being released, arguing that allowing them to become public would be traumatizing for survivors and could inspire copycats.
Recently, someone leaked images of three pages from the shooter’s journals to conservative commentator Stephen Crowder, who published them on Nov. 6. They include a detailed timeline for the March 27 shooting labeled “Death Day” and a slur-filled diatribe about kids who attend “private fancy schools,” although the 28-year-old shooter was a former Covenant student.
Seven Nashville Police officers were placed on administrative assignments amid an investigation into the leak. Four of those officers have since returned to regular duty.
The battle over the Covenant records is especially controversial because the shooter, who police say was “assigned female at birth,” seems to have identified as a transgender man. U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, of Missouri, is among those promoting a theory that the shooting was a hate crime against Christians.
The refusal to release the shooter’s writings has fueled speculation — particularly in conservative circles — regarding what they might contain and conspiracy theories about why police won’t release them.
Asked whether the groups seeking the records intend to appeal on the issue of intervention, attorney Doug Pierce said in a Friday email that they have not yet decided on a course of action.