Let’s say you really want to get back at some journalists who have been a pain in the ass, requesting a lot of information on a criminal case and just generally being nosey buttinskies. What to do, what to do… how about introducing a bill that would make all details of rape cases secret except for what’s revealed in a trial? You could say it’s about protecting victims’ privacy or something, and you’d be a hero.
So here’s how we got here: Four (now former) sportsball players at Vanderbilt University in Nashville are accused of raping an undergraduate in a dorm last June. To make matters worse, there may also have been a cover-up by coaching staff, who deny that they urged the football players to delete video they took of the rape. (Again. Boys! Such fans of cinema verite!) In the course of covering the case, newspaper reporters from The Tennessean kept being blocked in efforts to see records about the case, so last week, The Tennessean and several other press outlets sued the Nashville Metro Police and Vanderbilt for access to those records. And then a few days later, at the request of the Metro Nashville legal department, the bill to restrict information in sexual assault cases was filed by state Sen. Becky Duncan Massey. This seems like pretty darn convenient timing, maybe!
In an opinion piece published Sunday, Tennessean columnist Gail Kerr said that the law seems motivated by spite at the media, although
Metro Law Director Saul Soloman said the bill is not about the lawsuit. He said discussions about it have bounced around for two years. But unless you believe in the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny, it’s too big a stretch to say it was merely coincidence that the bill was filed days after the lawsuit was filed.
We would generally advise that professional writers stay away from Tooth Fairy similes, but okay, we will save the style workshop for later. Kerr points out that a law prohibiting the publication of names of sexual assault victims is unnecessary, since “No media organization in the state discloses the name of rape victims unless they want to be named.” She also notes that, had the proposed restrictions been in place in the last decade, women might actually have been in more danger from a notorious serial rapist in Tennessee. Kerr contends that had details of the “wooded rapist” case been suppressed in the name of protecting victims’ identities, the public would not have received information they used to help protect themselves:
The wooded rapist case is the most graphic example of why this is bad legislation. Facts about how and when he operated undoubtedly prevented him from attacking other women.
For example, police told the public he always struck in the early morning hours, when it was raining, and in houses that were beside wooded areas. He used guns and knives to subdue his victims, and covered his face. He broke into houses through sliding glass doors and unlocked windows. He stalked his victims before he attacked. He only struck on weeknights.
Yr Doktor Zoom is no lawyer, so we don’t know for sure that the proposed law would restrict everything Kerr claims, but advocates for open-records groups say it goes far beyond just not publishing a victim’s name:
The bill specifically states that public officials can’t “disclose any portion of a report, paper, picture, photograph, video, court file or other document which tends to identify such alleged victim.”
Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said the bill could potentially make all sex crimes records secret, robbing the public of valuable information.
On the other hand, the police and backers of the bill insist it’s all about “protecting victims” from mean reporters, who as we know from Die Hard won’t hesitate to release information that will help the bad guys, so all that stuff about “open records” may not be all that convincing. And if that also means that embarrassing information about the Vanderbilt case can be quietly hidden, well, those are the breaks, right?
Follow Doktor Zoom on Twitter. He’s pretty sure that if we need to know stuff, the police will definitely tell us.