The Tennessean publishes an editorial against proposed legislation that exempts parts of sexual assault crime records from the public records law. The editorial is reprinted here with permission:
State legislation backed by Metro Nashville, supposedly to protect the privacy of victims of sexual assault, has many implications for our state, but helping rape victims is not among them.
Senate Bill 2254 is first and foremost an attempt to intimidate news media organizations throughout Tennessee, as they pursue a lawsuit against Metro over its refusal to release records in the rape investigation involving former Vanderbilt University football players. The Tennessean is among the news organizations that filed the suit last week.
But the ramifications of this bill go far beyond a single, high-profile rape case, and it is this that is most worrisome.
As written, SB 2254 would inflict serious damage on the public’s and the media’s ability to access third-party records, not only in sexual assault cases, but across the legal spectrum. It also could be used to prevent defense attorneys from discussing evidence with their clients. Police and prosecutors could simply redact from documents any identifying information about an alleged victim. And the broadly worded bill would prohibit public officials from disclosing “any portion of a report, paper, picture, photograph, video, court file or other document which tends to identify such alleged victim.”
These prohibitions violate Tennessee’s open-records law, so Metro’s legal department is attempting to rewrite the law to suit its own purposes.
We do not know the real reason that Metro has fought so vigorously since last fall to keep third-party records such as phone texts under seal in the Vanderbilt case. The stated reason is to prevent media organizations from sensationalizing and exploiting the young woman who authorities say was a victim of sexual assault.
The problem with that argument is that no media organization in Nashville or across Tennessee ever identifies victims of sex crimes without their express permission. Metro officials, unless they live under a rock, know this. It is not in the best interest of news organizations, who count themselves as responsible members of the community, to reveal rape victims to the public, and it certainly is not the objective of the lawsuit against Metro.
It is in the best interest of news media to report about crimes, criminal investigations and court cases to a public that needs to know what is happening in the community, and where.
The American justice system works because there are rights for the accused, the accuser and the community at large. A law allowing police and prosecutors to seal or redact records will inevitably lead to the abuse of such power.
There is one other party who will be harmed this legislation: the rape victim.
If records involving sexual assault can be kept secret, it adds to the stigma of being attacked, rendering it more difficult for victims to recover from the experience. And when secrecy is an option, it’s only a matter of time before it will be used to protect the attacker, not the victim.