Should authorities "protect" the public from the thoughts of violent criminals? Do victims' families have a claim to suppress public records regarding assailants' deeds? These questions arise as some people seek to deter mass attacks by denying attention to perpetrators—especially in incidents that may involve controversies over ideology, culture, and policy. The debate over releasing the Covenant School shooter's manifesto is the most recent such example, and like all of them it should be resolved by acknowledging the public's right to know.
After the lethal March 27 shooting at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee, police revealed that the attacker, Audrey Hale, left behind a written record of preliminaries to the crime.
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A Blueprint or a Bust?
"In the collective writings by Hale found in her vehicle in the school parking lot, and others later found in the bedroom of her home, she documented, in journals, her planning over a period of months to commit mass murder at The Covenant School," Metropolitan Nashville police announced April 3. "The writings remain under careful review by the MNPD and the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit based in Quantico, Virginia. The motive for Hale's actions has not been established and remains under investigation by the Homicide Unit in consultation with the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit. It is known that Hale considered the actions of other mass murderers."
Hale was killed by police responding to the crime, leaving the documents as the only record of what might have motivated a murder spree that left three children and three adults dead. And the public certainly had an interest in delving into yet another school attack, committed with always-controversial firearms, by a transgender individual (Hale was biologically female but had recently begun identifying as a man and using the name "Aiden." Police reports use the name "Audrey," so I'm sticking with that). Maybe the writings would shed some light on the crime and, perhaps, similar tragedies.
Not that the authorities provide any clarity. Tennessee Bureau of Investigations Director David Rausch referred to Hale's documents as "'ramblings' rather than writings that point to a clear motive," according to The Tennessean, which is among those seeking their release. But Metro Nashville Council Member Courtney Johnston said they were "a blueprint on total destruction, and it was so, so detailed at the level of what she had planned." It's impossible to reconcile those characterizations and, in a period of plummeting trust in institutions, members of the public might want to decide for themselves rather than leave dueling officials to agree on a story.
Tussling Over the Documents' Release
But that's not happening, at least so far. After dragging their feet on releasing the documents, Nashville police refused, perversely blaming continuing delays on lawsuits and administrative appeals seeking access to the writings.
Then the Covenant School sued to prevent release, claiming they "may include and/or relate to sensitive information owned by The Covenant School."
And just last week, Hale's parents sought to distance themselves from the dispute by transferring ownership of the documents to victims' families. The families hope the move will bolster their efforts to suppress Hale's writings, though that may be a faint hope given that they're in police possession and the product of a murderer who committed a crime of public concern.
There's no doubt that members of the public are concerned. Multiple organizations, including two media outlets, are suing for access to information about the high-profile murders. Was Hale motivated by anti-Christian bias? By childhood experiences as an alumnus of the school? By earlier school shooters? Did the debate over trans identity play a role? What about self-defense rights and access to firearms? Did Hale take common security measures into account and plan around them? There's plenty of reason for researchers, reporters, activists, and people in general to want to see what Hale left behind.
Learning from Past Manifestos
This isn't the first time officials tried to make a crime and its attendant concerns go away by suppressing a criminal's thoughts. After Brenton Harrison Tarrant committed a 2019 mass murder in Christchurch, New Zealand, the country's government attempted to memory-hole his eco-fascist manifesto. Arguing the document was "deliberately constructed to inspire further murder and terrorism," New Zealand officials prosecuted their citizens for sharing it and leaned on private companies elsewhere to follow suit.
But analysts found the manifesto enlightening in terms of ideological evolution and terrorist tactics. "The manifesto specifically focuses on the anti-immigrant aspects of eco-fascism, dedicating at least an entire page to espousing what it calls 'Green Nationalism,'" wrote Alejandro Beutel for National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. Others compared the author's media tactics to those of ISIS or looked for indications of links among far-right extremists around the world.
So, a document produced by a mass murderer that government officials sought to suppress proved useful when examined by people looking for insight into the minds of such a criminal. Why would Hale's scribblings necessarily be of any less utility to those seeking to understand criminals, their motivations, and their tactics, and looking for ways to defend against future incidents?
Obstructionist Officials Without Credibility
There's also the important point that the law enforcement agencies sitting on Hale's writings are supported by taxes paid by the public and—theoretically, at least—have a responsibility to that public. They're supposed to protect people from crimes, not to obstruct their attempts to gain understanding from the malevolent thoughts of criminals. Yes, the Covenant School's administrators and the victims' families are members of the public, but their understandable desires to put the horrifying incident behind them don't trump the public's interest in forestalling future Hales.
And the powers-that-be are in no position to hide documents from the public and say, "trust us, you don't need to see this." According to Gallup, just 51 percent of respondents said they had a great deal or a lot of confidence in the police in 2021; that dropped to 45 percent in 2022. All of 20 percent of respondents said they had a great deal or a lot of confidence in the criminal justice system in 2021; that dropped to 14 percent in 2022. The people asking for access to Hale's manifesto (or "ramblings") may have more faith in their own judgment about the writings' importance than in that of officialdom.
That's especially true when Hale's documents may be relevant to ongoing debates. Anti-gun activists have already tried to build a case for restrictive laws on the crime. Others insist the murderer was motivated by anger over the treatment of trans people. People deserve to know what they contain. Suppressing the documents just makes everybody suspect the worst about their contents.
Whatever is in the writings, the public has the right to see them. And government officials have neither the right nor the credibility to stand in the way.