The entrance to the Covenant School is seen on the...

The entrance to the Covenant School is seen on the one-year anniversary of a mass shooting, March 27, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. On Monday, June 11, 2024, a Tennessee judge ordered Star News Digital Media, a conservative media organization, and editor-in-chief Michael Leahy to appear in court over its publishing details from allegedly leaked documents about the 2023 Nashville school shooting, while the outlet sues for the same kind of records to be released to the public. Credit: AP/George Walker IV

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Tennessee judge has ordered a conservative media 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 Monday, Nashville Chancellor I’Ashea Myles set a June 17 hearing for Star News Digital Media and editor-in-chief Michael 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 Tuesday 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 media 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 stories 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, they 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 assigned female at birth, 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 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 that 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.

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