Nashville Judge Blocks Release of Covenant School Killer's Journal

AP Photo/John Amis

For well over a year, journalists and Second Amendment groups have been fighting for the release of a trove of documents related to the shootings at Nashville's Covenant School in 2023, including the private journals of the killer. Now, a judge in Tennessee's capitol city has issued her decision, and the contents of the journal will be kept officially under wraps... even though portions of the journal have already been leaked on multiple occasions. 


Chancellor I’Ashea L. Myles, who serves on the Chancery Court in Davidson County, Tennessee, did rule that the police investigative report on the Covenant  shooting could see the light of day once it's been completed, though any references to the school’s security could be redacted. As for the contents of the killer's journal, Myles accepted the unusual argument raised by several families of victims that releasing the material would violate copyright law.

Lawyers and pro-First Amendment advocates have argued against further weakening the state’s public records laws, especially after Covenant School families successfully lobbied for the passage of a law that limits access to autopsy records of children.

The debate over the writings took an unexpected turn last summer when the parents of the assailant, as the closest surviving relatives, signed over legal ownership of the writings to the families of surviving students. Lawyers for the families argued in court that this decision also granted them copyright ownership of the papers, an argument that proved pivotal in the case.

To allow “allow public inspection, display or copying of the original materials,” including the shooter’s writings, journals, art, photos and videos, Chancellor Myles wrote, “would violate and conflict with the exclusive federal rights granted to copyright owners.”

Except that the federal government recognizes an exemption for "fair use" of copyrighted material, particularly for things like news reporting, academic research, criticism, and commentary. Granted, federal statutes suggest that unpublished material is less likely to be considered fair use, but I think there's still a strong case to be made that the contents of the killer's journal is newsworthy enough that it shouldn't be kept secret... especially since there have already been multiple leaks of at least portions of the journal in question. 


Those opposed to publishing the writings, however, said that the leaks proved that any release would raise the prominence of the shooter, and allow the writings to spread.

“This opinion is an important first step to making sure the killer can’t hurt our babies anymore,” said Dr. Erin Kinney, whose 9-year-old son, Will, was one of three third-graders killed in the shooting. “The importance is even more clear due to the leaking of stolen police documents, which has violated our parental right to protect our traumatized and grieving children from material that could destroy their lives.”

I personally have no desire or interest to delve into the twisted mind of the Covenant killer, and I understand Kinney's concerns. There's a full-blown subculture that's sprung up around mass murderers, and though the killer's writings would undoubtedly horrify most of us, I'm sure that some readers would be intrigued and excited by the contents of the journal. 

Again, though, that subculture already has access to at least a few pages of that material, and there's no guarantee that the rest of the journal won't be leaked in the future. It's also not the job of the judiciary to protect us from the delusional thinking and misplaced rage that spilled out onto the pages of the journal, any more than it would have been appropriate for the courts to halt publication of the Pentagon Papers or the Unabomber's manifesto, which was published in the pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times at the request of then-Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI director Louis Freeh back in 1995. 


If anything, keeping the Covenant killer's writings under wraps just makes them more enticing to the warped subculture that revolves around mass shooters, and elevates the killer to superstar status in their strange little minds. No matter how disturbing the killer's words might be, the public has a right to know what they are and what light they shed on the cowardly murders of six innocent people, including three young students. 

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