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Judge Puts Freedom Of Press On Trial In Nashville Trans Shooter ‘Manifesto’ Battle

Police responde to Covenant School, scene of March 27, 2023 mass shooting.
Image CreditABC 7 Chicago / Youtube 

Editor Michael Patrick Leahy says he will go to jail before revealing the source of the documents, and the judge just might oblige.


Michael Patrick Leahy walked out of a Nashville courthouse Monday morning celebrating his freedom — at least for now. 

“I am a free man and can continue to exercise my First Amendment rights,” the CEO and editor-in-chief of The Tennessee Star declared on his X account. 

Tennessee Chancery Court Judge l’Ashea Myles had ordered Leahy to court after his Star News Network had reported on portions of the so-called “manifesto” of Audrey Elizabeth Hale, the transgender-identified shooter who murdered six people at a Nashville Christian school. The Star reported that it had obtained images of roughly 80 pages of the killer’s journal that police found in her vehicle. The journal entries cover the weeks before she stormed into Covenant School in late March 2023 and fatally shot three 9-year-olds and three adults. 

Myles last week scheduled the show cause hearing to find out whether publishing portions of the killer’s journals violated an order regarding Hale’s documents — and whether Leahy could face jail time. But the Star didn’t publish or link to the documents; it reported on them, a point made clear at Monday’s hearing. 

Leahy has said he would go to jail before revealing the source of the photocopied documents, which have been authenticated by the local police department. 

“A judge doesn’t have the right to force me to do something unconstitutional,” he told free-speech activist Michael Shellenberger in an interview about the First Amendment showdown. 

The legal battle has garnered international attention and solidarity for Leahy and the Star from First Amendment experts. Should Leahy and his publication be found in contempt, the CEO could be subject to sanctions, including jail time. 

‘Making Things Up’

Monday’s proceedings, the direction of which changed after Myles denied the Star’s request to dismiss the show cause hearing, have left Leahy in a kind of legal limbo. The Star argues the show cause hearing violates Tennessee’s shield law, protecting reporters from being compelled to reveal sources, and hinders the news outlet’s due-process rights. 

Myles said she merely wanted to “ascertain the status and veracity of any alleged leak” of documents “in the possession of this Court” and the police department. She wanted to get the “lay of the land” before she rules on whether law enforcement officials are required by public record law to release the records. Most of the documents remain locked away in Nashville Metro and FBI custody. Myles also has a copy of the records. 

Myles sparred with Leahy’s attorney, Daniel A. Horwitz, a nationally recognized First Amendment lawyer, who noted that none of the lawsuit’s parties maintain that Leahy or his publication “violated the contempt statute or violated the order of this court.” 

“I will determine, based on what I’ve heard today, in a subsequent order, whether or not there will be other proceedings,” Myles told the attorney. “And so again, I understand your desire to educate the court on your client’s position, but it is simply not ripe yet.”

Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said the judge called Leahy to court to explain why he didn’t violate the court’s order and then shut down his attorney when he tried to explain. 

“It feels like she’s making things up as she goes along,” the First Amendment expert said. “The good news is she did not put Michael Patrick Leahy in jail.” 

‘I Will Die a Shooter’

Leahy and Star News Digital Media, The Tennessee Star’s parent company, are plaintiffs in lawsuits demanding the Metro Nashville Police Department (MNPD) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation turn over Hale’s manifesto, which includes multiple journals and other documents. I previously served as national political editor for the news organization and am also a plaintiff in the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the FBI.

The law enforcement agencies have argued that releasing Hale’s writings would damage their “ongoing investigation.” But the transgender killer, the only identified suspect in the case, is dead. A recently obtained FBI memo to Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake suggests what many have long suspected: President Joe Biden’s identity politics-steeped Department of Justice is leading a cover-up of the deadliest transgender-directed shootings in U.S. history.  

“Public access to legacy tokens [journals, videos and other mass shooter communications] will also facilitate false narratives and inaccurate information,” the FBI claimed, adding that making mass shooter manifestos public will lead to “pontificators” and “self-professed ‘experts’” who “will proffer their perspectives” in the press, “potentially inflaming the public.”

The documents published in recent weeks paint a picture of a deeply disturbed 28-year-old woman who identified as a man. Hale appeared to be immersed in trans indoctrination, self-loathing, and rage.  

“I am of no society. And I hate society [because] society ignores to see me,” Hale concluded one of the 80 pages of writings obtained by The Tennessee Star. “I’m a queer; I am meant to die,” she wrote and signed the entry “Aiden.”

As the news outlet wrote, Hale dreamed of notoriety — the infamous kind — in an entry comparing her life to Paige Averianna Patton, a Nashville radio personality who attended middle school with Hale. The two played on the school basketball team.

“She will live a legend and I will die a shooter — hopefully to become infamous. No one will forget neither of us,” Hale wrote. She concluded the entry by declaring Patton “will be the blessing, and I will be the horror to inflict pain” on the world.

Hale also wrote about her “imaginary penis” and that she would “kill” to get her hands on puberty blockers less than two weeks before her deadly errand, the Star reported.

“My penis exists in my head. I swear to god I’m a male,” the killer wrote in one of the many journals recovered by police. 

‘Process Is the Punishment’

Tennessee lawmakers and First Amendment advocates have defended Leahy and the Star, with one state representative calling Myles an “activist judge.” 

“The TN legislature will not stand for an activist judge who weaponizes their courtroom. [Leahy] is the press and does not have to prove to any courtroom that he is innocent. I will file the proper resolutions to remove judges engaging in abuse like this,” state Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, wrote on X. 

Interestingly, the free press battle began when Nashville TV news reporter Stacey Cameron called the judge requesting comment. He asked Myles to respond to the claim that the Star had allegedly published “[leaked] documents in violation of” Myles’ order. 

“However, Judge Myles was unaware of the supposed leak, until WSMV4 Investigates’ Stacey Cameron called the court asking for a reaction to the leak, wanting to know if she was considering holding the Star or anyone else in contempt,” WSMV reported. 

Fisher, from the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said the proceedings are “strange,” and they’re not over yet. Myles could still appoint a special investigator to look into the alleged violations. She could find Leahy in contempt. The Star and its CEO, which sued to bring to light the motives and mindset of Nashville’s deadliest school shooter, are now themselves a target of the legal process. 

“In this case it seems like the process is the punishment,” Fisher said. “She wanted justification for the contempt proceeding. She’s still thinking about it. If a court speaks through its orders, she was upset about the leak.”

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