Tennessee Appeals Court Upholds Covenant School’s Right to Contest Shooter’s Writings Release

Judge’s decision follows unauthorized leak of some documents that resulted in seven officers being placed on administrative duty pending a probe into the leak.
Tennessee Appeals Court Upholds Covenant School’s Right to Contest Shooter’s Writings Release
An ambulance leaves of Covenant School, Covenant Presbyterian Church, in Nashville, Tenn., on March 27, 2023. (John Amis/AP Photo)
Chase Smith

In the first court ruling since the summer in the public records lawsuit seeking to force the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department (MNPD) to release the writings left behind by the March 27 Covenant School shooter, the Tennessee Court of Appeals bolstered the efforts of those seeking to keep the shooter’s writings confidential in a Thursday ruling.

The court upheld a lower court’s ruling that allowed various parties, including the families of victims, to intervene as third-party participants in the public records lawsuit filed by various individuals, media organizations, and other interested organizations.

This ruling supports the earlier decision of a lower court, made by Davidson County Chancellor I'Ashea Myles, acknowledging the sensitive nature of the documents and their potential impact.

The court specifically stated that the trial court allowed intervention using the reasoning that the church and the school had a vested interest in the case.

“The court noted that these parties sought to protect private information to which Petitioners would not normally have access inasmuch as the Church and the School were private entities,” Judge Thomas Frierson wrote in the court’s unanimous opinion.

“The court also relied upon the affidavits filed by Metro establishing that an active, ongoing criminal investigation existed regarding potential coconspirators.”

Additionally, the higher court agreed that “irreparable injury would occur if there were public access to the private information contained in the records at issue” and acknowledged the shared legal and factual questions between the parents and other parties, justifying their intervention.

Arguments in the lower court over the case’s merits, which have yet to be argued as the appeal played out, can begin as soon as the next hearing is set. Those proceedings in the lower court have been on pause since June.

Court Ruling Implications

The Appeals Court’s decision is a crucial development in the debate over public access to sensitive information and the rights of victims and affected communities in the state.
The court disagreed with one of the key arguments of the petitioners seeking access to the records, which was that the state’s public records act does not permit the intervention of third parties in related litigation because the dispute is strictly between the person seeking the records and the entity holding the records.

“As the trial court noted in its orders, Intervenors asserted that they would suffer a distinct and palpable injury by the disclosure of the records sought,” Judge Frierson wrote.

The court’s ruling asserts what they explain is the need to balance the public’s right to information with safeguarding individuals’ emotional and psychological well-being.

What Happened Before Now

The story traces back to the tragic shooting, which left three children and three adults dead. The shooter also died as police exchanged gunfire with her upon arriving on the scene.
In the days after the shooting, Nashville Police Chief John Drake noted the shooter, a female-to-male transgender former student, left behind a litany of documents, going as far as saying she left behind a “manifesto.”
Audrey Hale points a gun inside the Covenant School in Nashville, Tenn., on March 27, 2023. (Nashville Police Department via The Epoch Times)
Audrey Hale points a gun inside the Covenant School in Nashville, Tenn., on March 27, 2023. (Nashville Police Department via The Epoch Times)

Various public records requests, including those submitted by The Epoch Times, were denied, citing a Tennessee rule that allows public records to be withheld amid ongoing investigations—even though the shooter was killed at the scene of the shooting.

Subsequent legal battles centered on the public release of the shooter’s writings and how far the right to information stretches that Tennesseeans are afforded under the Tennessee Public Records Act.

The situation escalated this month with the unauthorized leak of some documents, confirmed as authentic by Mr. Drake. Nashville police placed seven officers on administrative duty amid investigations into the leak—however, no other information has been released on the leak so far.

Looking Ahead

The Appeals Court ruling sets the stage for the next phase of the legal battle, potentially impacting beyond this individual case and public records precedent in Tennessee. It raises questions about handling sensitive materials in the digital age, particularly after the leak of some information, and the responsibilities of legal and governmental institutions in safeguarding privacy and well-being.

As the community continues to grapple with the aftermath of the Covenant School shooting, this development in the courtroom brings a new dimension to the conversation about privacy, public interest, and the balance between them.

Chase is an award-winning journalist. He covers national news for The Epoch Times and is based out of Tennessee. For news tips, send Chase an email at [email protected] or connect with him on X.
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