Broadly-Written Sex Crimes Bill Attracts Concerns, Criticism From Press and Open-Records Advocates

State Sen. Becky Massey is carrying a bill on behalf of the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police that, as written, would essentially make sex crimes secret.

SB 2254 was introduced in January and would prohibit the release of police records containing identifying information of victims of sexual offenses. "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 says.

Massey (R-Knoxville) says she was asked by Knoxville Police Chief David Rausch, who is also TACP's second vice president, to carry the bill for the association. "And when Chief Rausch asks you to do something, [you do]," she says. Plus, Massey says she was told this is TACP's second priority this legislative session, only after anti-meth legislation.

Last week in The Tennessean, the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and the Tennessee Bar Association said the bill could not only make rapes and sexual assaults secret, but it could also hinder defense attorneys.

Massey shrugs off the latter supposition, saying any hindrance to building a defense case would be overturned by the courts anyway. "The courts wouldn't allow that. It wouldn't be constitutional if someone couldn't have all the information they need to defend themselves in an ongoing court case. I think with the depositions and things like that, it would all come out," she says.

But Massey says she's open to hearing ideas on how to re-word the bill to allow news that a rape occurred to be public information. The intent was not to make sex crimes secret, she says, but to protect victims' identities.

News organizations almost universally do not print the names or identifying information of victims of sexual assault. Massey acknowledges that but says records of rape cases are still public record, meaning "You as a private citizen can go get that information and you can post it on Facebook. People don't realize that. The laws have not kept up with technology."

Maggi Duncan, the executive director of TACP, echoes Massey, saying, "Technology has advanced faster than the statutes." She added that the idea of keeping records with sex-crime victims' information in them sealed has been discussed among police chiefs for some time. Duncan explains TACP wasn't out to target news organizations, but she calls out blogs such as TMZ, a celebrity-centric site, which she says do not have policies against naming victims of sex crimes. The bottom line, Duncan says, is that the public doesn't "need to know the victim's home address," which is currently part of public record.

But that's not a good enough reason to make all documents related to sex crimes a secret, say both the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and the Tennessee Press Association.

"By allowing secrecy, we're allowing too much latitude to determine what the public knows or doesn't know about a crime that may happen in their community," says Deborah Fisher, the executive director of TCOG. "How would we as a society know if rapes are being fully investigated? Are they being prosecuted fully? Are women being talked out of charges? No one would know that except for police."

Massey allows that the original bill could "potentially" be interpreted as Fisher sees it, but says, "Anybody can interpret anything in any particular way." Massey also adds that "the statistics will still be [available]" if her bill is passed, which would presumably inform the public of how many rapes and sexual assaults had occurred in their city.

And no matter what the bill's intentions are, the press association's public policy director Frank Gibson says the bill is "going to hunt for a gnat with an elephant gun... We think that is terribly unreasonable and overkill."

However, Candace Allen, who manages the Sexual Assault Center of East Tennessee, says that in her experience, guarantees of privacy make people more likely to share or report incidences of sexual assault.

"Any time a victim feels like their personal matters are going to be broadcast, then that perpetuates a fear [of reporting]," she says.

Kathy Walsh, the executive director of the Tennessee Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence, says victims are often greatly concerned their personal information will get out to the public, and that this bill would could give victims the assurance they need that their names don't become public knowledge. She also says she was contacted about one incident that involved a sex-crime victim's information being posted on the Internet, though Walsh says she's not sure how the information was obtained.

"Many victims struggle with the effects of sexual assault their entire lives. I think we have to be extremely sensitive to that. I also think that media can report on these instances without having a victim's name," Walsh says.

Allen, at the Sexual Assault Center in Knoxville, says that the current system of communicating with the Knoxville Police Department and Knox County Sheriff's Office is working well, and doesn't necessarily think it needs to be changed.

Massey says victims should be the ones to decide whether to speak publicly about their experiences or not.

"I think we need to respect their right to discuss it the way they want to discuss it," she says.

Interested parties, including Fisher, Gibson, Walsh, and Rausch, attended a meeting with Massey about the bill on Monday in Nashville. Going in, Gibson says the press association was "concerned that [police] would be able to legally withhold the incident report."

After the meeting, Massey said the group was working to refine language on an amendment that would allow full access to records of sex crimes while the case is ongoing, and after the case is adjudicated, the name and identifying information of the victim would be redacted from any records requested by the press or the public. Massey says she'll probably be able to introduce the amendment next week or the week after in the Senate judiciary committee.

Walsh says she's confident in the process of amending the bill. "I think we'll be able to come out with a bill this session that's going to really be significant in assisting victims of sexual assault."

Fisher and Gibson both say they are hopeful the amendment will be added, but stop short of saying they're optimistic the bill will be changed.

"What I hope happens is that the public does not lose its ability to know what is going on with this crime," Fisher says.

Gibson goes a step further, saying "The public needs to be able to check if crime is being committed in their neighborhood."