A new bill proposed in Tennessee attempts to safeguard rape victims’ privacy by protecting information about sexual assault cases from the public. But critics of the legislation say it’s written too broadly, and warn it could ultimately end up turning rape into an “invisible crime” that the media is never able to bring to light. Some state residents also suspect it’s a direct response to an ongoing rape trial involving four Vanderbilt University football stars, in which the press is battling with local law enforcement to obtain details that haven’t been made public.
Nashville’s Metro Police Department is one of the primary proponents of the new legislation, which was introduced by state Sen. Becky Duncan Massey (R) earlier this month. The police force’s spokesperson says the bill has been in the works for several years, and isn’t specifically in response to the Vanderbilt rape case. But, given the timing, not everyone in the state is buying that explanation.
This past fall, details about an alleged sexual assault at the prestigious university in Nashville first began to come to light. Four former football players for Vanderbilt were charged with raping a student in a dorm room while she was unconscious. The alleged perpetrators may have photographed and videotaped the assault and circulated those materials more widely. But that evidence hasn’t been published. Most of the information about the high-profile rape case hasn’t been released to the press, and the legal proceedings have mostly taken place behind closed doors.
A group of media organizations — including the Associated Press, the Tennessean, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Knoxville News Sentinel, and several television stations in Nashville and Knoxville — sued the city of Nashville at the beginning of February over its ongoing refusal to release the records from the investigation. The press outlets are primarily seeking the video and photo evidence. They say that evidence should be available under the Tennessee Public Records Act, unlike the internal state documents that must be kept under wraps in order to effectively prosecute the case. Duncan Massey’s bill was filed a week later.
Despite the fact that the legal battle over the records isn’t yet resolved, some additional details about the Vanderbilt case have started to leak. This week, both the prosecution and the defense in the ongoing case expressed concern about new information coming to light. The lawyers for the accused rapists say that the information is biased, and could end up unfairly prejudicing a jury against their clients. Meanwhile, the prosecutor who’s representing the victim says he believes someone is attempting to intimidate her.
And the rape victim believes that if more information is made public, she may end up suffering the consequences. On Tuesday, she filed an affidavit saying that the records that the media is seeking “would subject me to harassment, abuse and intimidation.”
That is often the case with media coverage of rape cases, which can ultimately result in putting the victim on trial. After a similar high-profile sexual assault case unfolded in Steubenville, Ohio, last year, the national press spent most of its time lamenting the rapists’ dashed football careers and emphasizing the fact that the victim was drunk. This type of victim-blaming is pervasive, and ultimately dissuades most sexual assault survivors from attempting to seek criminal charges at all. The media typically refrains from identifying victims of rape unless they specify otherwise, but that doesn’t always guarantee that news stories will cover the issue sensitively.
But, of course, the criminal justice system has its own huge problems when it comes to dealing with rape cases. Just three out of every 100 rapists will ever spend a day behind bars, partly because some law enforcement officials have inherent biases about rape victims and don’t always approach these cases effectively. Can these investigations be trusted to proceed behind closed doors?
Frank Gibson, the public policy director of the Tennessee Press Association and the founding director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, doesn’t think so. Gibson told the Tennessean this week that law enforcement agencies have often “abused the rules of criminal procedure” to withhold information that should be public.
Gibson’s colleague Deborah Fisher, who serves as the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government’s executive director, explains that this is exactly why Tennessee’s proposed legislation is a step too far. If implemented, it could seal all of the records about crimes involving sexual violence. “It makes sexual assault crimes invisible to the public where only police have access to the information,” Fisher noted. “We would not want rape to be an invisible crime.”