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Judge: Writings of Nashville school shooter may not be published because victims’ families own copyright

By TRAVIS LOLLER – Associated Press

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

Judge I’Ashea Myles of Chancery Court found that the children and parents of Covenant School own the copyright to all writings and other works of shooter Audrey Hale, a former student who was killed by police. As part of their efforts to keep the records secret, Hale’s parents transferred ownership of Hale’s property to the victims’ families, who then argued in court that they should be allowed to determine who has access to it.

Myles recognized that claiming copyright as an exception to the Tennessee Public Records Act was a novel argument that previous courts had not ruled on. In the end, she sided with the parent group and held that “the original writings, diaries, artwork, photographs and videos created by Hale are subject to an exception to the TPRA created by federal copyright law.”

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The ruling, handed down just before midnight Thursday, comes more than a year after several groups filed public requests seeking documents seized by Metro Nashville Police during their investigation into the March 2023 shooting that killed Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs and William Kinney, all 9 years old, and adults Cynthia Peak, 61; Katherine Koonce, 60; and Mike Hill, 61.

Interest in the records stems in part from the fact that Hale, who police say was “assigned female at birth,” may have identified as a transgender man. In addition, some experts have theorized that the diaries reveal a planned hate crime against Christians.

The victims’ families released statements Friday praising the verdict. Cindy Peak’s family wrote: “The last year and a half without Cindy have been difficult. But today, our family feels some relief. Denying the shooter some of the fame she sought by spilling her vile and unfiltered thoughts to the world is an outcome everyone should be grateful for.”

The shooter left behind at least 20 diaries, a suicide note and memoirs, according to court records. When the records were rejected, several parties filed suit and the situation quickly devolved into a chaotic mix of conspiracy theories, leaked documents, inheritance disputes and accusations of ethical misconduct. Myles’ order will almost certainly be appealed.

In addition to the copyright claims, the Covenant parents argued that publishing the documents would be traumatic for the families and could provoke copycat attacks.

Myles concluded that the threat of counterfeiting was real and “extremely worrying.”

“Hale used the writings of other perpetrators of similar crimes to construct and execute this plan, imitating some of them not only in their methodology but also in their choice of weapons and targets,” Myles wrote. “Hale even portrayed and idolized previous perpetrators as heroes of their attacks.”

The Associated Press is among the groups that requested the documents but did not join the lawsuit.

Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, warned that Myles’ ruling could have far-reaching consequences, making it easier to hide evidence of a crime from the public.

“The claim that copyright in evidence collected by police can rest with the offender or the offender’s surviving parents or spouses does not bode well for police or justice system transparency,” she said.

Fisher believes this will lead to a system in which selective evidence is leaked, as happened in the Covenant case. First, pages from a magazine were leaked to a conservative commentator, who posted them on social media in November. Recently, The Tennessee Star published dozens of articles based on what it said were 80 pages of Hale’s writings provided by an unnamed source. The magazine is among the plaintiffs, and Myles briefly threatened to sue the paper’s editor-in-chief, Michael Leahy, and owner Star News Digital Media for contempt of court.

Although Myles’ ruling will protect many of the documents Hale created from public release, other documents in the police file may be released after the case is closed, provided they fall under Tennessee state law allowing public records. Doug Pierce, an attorney for the lead plaintiff in the case, said in an email that they are waiting to see what documents Metro Nashville provides after the investigation is complete.

“It is too early to judge whether an appeal will be filed,” he wrote.

This article has been corrected to show that the Associated Press did not participate in the lawsuit.

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