News Sentinel: Privacy bill of no real help to sexual assault victims

This editorial was published by the Knoxville News Sentinel on Feb. 16, and reprinted here with permission:

A bill that would ostensibly protect the privacy of sexual assault victims in Tennessee would actually endanger criminal prosecutions and do nothing to lessen the anguish of the people it purports to help.

The legislation, introduced in the Senate by Knoxville Republican Becky Duncan Massey at the request of Metro Nashville government, would make all records containing virtually any information about a sexual assault victim confidential.

“No portion of any report, paper, picture, photograph, video, court file, or other document in the custody or possession of any public officer or employee which identifies an alleged victim of a sexual offense shall be made available for public inspection or copying,” the bill reads.

The bill’s scope is so broad that the members of the public would be kept ignorant of crimes committed in their communities and fair trials for the accused could be jeopardized. Neither situation helps victims.

The impulse to shield a victim of sexual assault from the glare of public attention is a noble one — and one that the media share. The News Sentinel and every other reputable news organization across the state have long-standing policies in place to prevent the identification of sexual assault victims (exceptions can be made if the victim voluntarily asks that his or her story be told). Journalists are as sensitive as anyone else to the physical and psychological suffering sexual assault victims endure.

But this bill, as written, would hide virtually all information about sexual assaults from the public, reinforcing the idea that somehow the victim should be ashamed. And the bill’s restrictions on defense attorneys put it on shaky constitutional ground.

“It makes sexual assault crimes invisible to the public where only police have access to the information,” Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, told The Tennessean. “We would not want rape to be an invisible crime.”

The bill would keep defense attorneys from sharing information with their clients, preventing them from giving effective representation. Allan Ramsaur, executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association, told The Tennessean his initial concern is that those restrictions on attorney-client conversations would compromise the right of those accused of these crimes to confront their accusers and participate in their own defense.

Providing the accused with a fair trial is in the best interests of the state, the accused and the victim. Appeals, overturned verdicts, retrials and constitutional challenges would needlessly add to a victim’s torment.

The timing of the bill’s introduction is curious. Though Metro Nashville Law Director Saul Solomon told The Tennessean that the bill has been discussed for a couple of years, its introduction coincides with a lawsuit filed by a media coalition, led by The Tennessean and including the News Sentinel, that would force Metro Nashville to release records pertaining to a rape investigation involving Vanderbilt University football players.

Another curiosity is that Metro Nashville did not persuade lawmakers representing the city to carry the legislation. Massey represents a portion of Knox County, while the House sponsor, Republican state Rep. Mary Littleton, represents Cheatham and Dickson counties.

Massey has said she would work with interested parties to amend the legislation to allay concerns. We do not doubt she had the best of intentions in agreeing to sponsor the legislation and would genuinely attempt to improve its language, but the bill is poorly conceived and would do far more damage than good. It would be better if Massey withdrew the bill from consideration. There are other ways to help sexual assault victims cope with their painful situations than to pass legislation that would push these heinous crimes into the shadows.

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