Home » News » Judge sets hearing over alleged leak of Nashville school-shooter info to conservative outlet

By Jonathan Mattise, The Associated Press, published on June 12, 2024

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The entrance to the Covenant School is seen on the one-year anniversary of a mass shooting, March 27, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. AP Photo/George Walker IV, file

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee judge has ordered a conservative news organization to appear in court over publishing details from allegedly leaked documents about a 2023 Nashville school shooting, while the outlet sues for the same kind of records to be released to the public.

On June 10, Nashville Chancellor I’Ashea Myles set a June 17 hearing for Star News Digital Media and editor-in-chief Michael Patrick Leahy to explain why their recent work on The Covenant School shooter has not violated court orders that could subject them to contempt proceedings and sanctions. She cited the “alleged publication of certain purported documents and information” under seal with the judge in the public-records case.

The Tennessee Star, a Star News publication, says the claim that the Star violated a court order is inaccurate. In part, it reasoned in a story June 11 that it didn’t publish any of the actual leaked images or documents — only some information contained within them.

“This could raise First Amendment issues,” said Deborah Fisher, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government’s executive director.

The hearing could put competing arguments on display not just about the First Amendment protection of news outlets but also the extent to which judges can control conduct in their cases.

Myles wrote that she became aware of the stories by The Tennessee Star from a media call seeking her comment about their articles citing leaked documents.

In the public-records lawsuit, the plaintiffs include news outlets, a gun-rights group, a law enforcement nonprofit and Tennessee state Sen. Todd Gardenhire. Star News Digital Media is also suing the FBI in federal court to seek the release of the documents.

And while the city of Nashville has argued it doesn’t have to release the documents during an active police investigation, the plaintiffs have countered that there is no meaningful criminal investigation underway since the shooter is dead; Audrey Hale was killed by police. It does not matter that the police investigation is officially still open, the plaintiffs’ attorneys contend.

The shooter who killed three 9-year-old children and three adults in March 2023 at Covenant, a private Christian school, left behind at least 20 journals, a suicide note and an unpublished memoir, according to court filings. Despite the ongoing lawsuits, the documents had already been the subject of leaks.

A few pages of one journal were leaked to a conservative commentator who posted them to social media in November. Part of the interest in the records stems from the fact that the shooter, who police say was biologically female, may have been a transgender man.

Nashville police said they “exhausted all available investigative avenues” while looking into the leak last year. They noted that one former police detective who had images from the journal declined interview requests, and the department said it “does not have the ability to compel statements or cooperation from former employees.”

The police department sent its investigative report about the leak to the Nashville district attorney’s office, whose spokesperson has said there has been no decision yet on what action, if any, it will take. The police department has declined to release the report so far, calling it an open matter.

After the Star’s reporting in recent weeks, the police department said in a statement that “it is concerned about the alleged leak, and we, like others, would like to know from where it came.”

The judge in the public records case has shown concern about possible leaks. In February filings, she noted that she ordered the parties not to directly quote or reproduce any leaked documents in the case, threatening sanctions, including contempt of court, for any “efforts to usurp” court orders by the parties, attorneys or involved third parties.

Last year, police initially said they intended to release the shooter’s writings once they closed their investigation, which police have estimated could happen sometime next month. Since then, a group of Covenant School parents have joined the lawsuit, arguing that none of the documents should ever be released. They say the shooter’s writings could retraumatize their children and inspire copycats.

The group of parents have gained ownership rights over the shooter’s writings and have threatened in court filings to copyright them and sue anyone who publishes them.

At a hearing in April, an attorney for the city said writings found in the shooter’s car can be released without compromising the investigation.

An attorney representing Covenant, meanwhile, has argued that a different law forbidding the release of information, records or plans related to school security could apply to all of the shooter’s writings if construed broadly.

See also:

Tenn. state senator, newspaper file Covenant ‘manifesto’ public-records lawsuits; parents seek to intervene
Is school shooter Audrey Hale’s ‘manifesto’ an open record under the Tennessee Public Records Act?

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