Judge says Nashville school shooter's writings can't be released as victims' families have copyright

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

Chancery Court Judge I’Ashea Myles found that The Covenant School children and parents hold the copyright to any writings or other works created by shooter Audrey Hale, a former student who was killed by police. As part of the effort to keep the records closed, 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 them.

Myles recognized that claiming copyright as an exception to the Tennessee Public Records Act was a novel argument that previous courts have not ruled on. In the end, she agreed with the parents’ group, finding that “the original writings, journals, art, photos and videos created by Hale are subject to an exception to the TPRA created by the federal Copyright Act.”

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

Part of the interest in the records stems from the fact that Hale, who police say was “assigned female at birth,” may have identified as a transgender man, and some pundits have floated the theory that the journals will reveal a planned hate crime against Christians.

The victims' families released statements praising the ruling on Friday. Cindy Peak’s family wrote, “The last year and a half without Cindy has been difficult. But today brings a measure of relief in our family. Denying the shooter some of the notoriety she sought by releasing her vile and unfiltered thoughts on the world is a result everyone should be thankful for.”

The shooter left behind at least 20 journals, a suicide note and a memoir, according to court filings. When the records requests were denied, several parties sued, and the situation quickly ballooned into a messy mix of conspiracy theories, leaked documents, probate battles and accusations of ethical misconduct. Myles' order will almost surely be appealed.

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

Myles found that the copycat risk was real and “of grave concern.”

“Hale used the writings of other perpetrators in similar crimes to guide how this plan was constructed and accomplished, mimicking some not only in their methodology, but also choice of weapons and targets," Myles wrote. "Hale even held past perpetrators out as heroes in their attacks, idolizing them.”

The Associated Press is among the groups that requested the records but did not participate in the lawsuit.

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

“To say that evidence collected by police can be copyrighted by the criminal, or the surviving parent or spouse of the criminal, does not bode well for the transparency of the police or the judicial system," she said.

Fisher thinks it will lead to a system in which selective evidence is leaked, as it has been in the Covenant case. First, pages from one journal were leaked to a conservative commentator who posted them to social media in November. More recently, The Tennessee Star published dozens of stories based on allegedly 80 pages of Hale’s writings provided by an unnamed source. The publication is among the plaintiffs, and Myles briefly threatened to hold the paper's editor-in-chief, Michael Leahy, and owner, Star News Digital Media, in contempt.

Although Myles' ruling will shield many of the documents created by Hale from public release, other documents in the police file can be released once the case is officially closed as long as they fall under Tennessee's open records law. 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 once the investigation is complete.

“It is too early to evaluate whether there will be any appeal,” he wrote.


This story was corrected to show that The Associated Press did not participate in the lawsuit.