Proposed state legislation pushed by Metro Nashville could hide information on rape cases from the public and prevent defense attorneys from discussing key evidence with their clients.
Sen. Becky Duncan Massey, R-Knoxville, filed the bill at the behest of Metro's legal department. The bill, if passed, would shield the identity and personal information of rape victims.
But, as written, critics say it could not only turn rape into an "invisible crime," but could also interfere with a defendant's right to a fair trial by preventing attorneys from discussing key evidence with their clients.
Metro Law Director Saul Solomon said the main push for the bill is "balancing the victim's right of privacy with the public's right to know." He said the bill has been discussed for the past two years and would simply allow police and prosecutors to redact personal information.
"If there was a document, to me, that had identifying information ... there would be a redaction process," he said.
But Massey's bill is too broadly written for open records advocates' tastes. 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.
"It makes sexual assault crimes invisible to the public where only police have access to the information," she said. "We would not want rape to be an invisible crime."
The matter has also drawn concern from members of the Tennessee Bar Association. The bill states that even defense attorneys would be banned from giving their client any personal information about the victim, "other than the name."
While the bar association has not officially taken a position on the bill, attorneys worry that potential limits on what defense attorneys could tell their clients could be unconstitutional.
"The restrictions in the bill on what the accused may know about the victim would compromise the right of the accused to confront the accuser and participate in their own defense are of initial concern," said Allan Ramsaur, the association's executive director.
Massey said by email that she's sensitive to those concerns.
"As we work through the legislative process, we are happy to sit down and discuss the bill with interested parties in an effort to strike a balance while protecting sensitive information regarding victims of violent sex crimes," she said.
The Tennessean and a coalition of other media filed a lawsuit last week against Metro over its refusal to release records from a rape investigation that led to charges against four former Vanderbilt University football players.
An agreement signed by prosecutors and the defendants' attorneys has kept some evidence, including materials prepared by the university, secret. Metro officials have repeatedly denied the newspaper's records requests.
Other media joining in the lawsuit include The Associated Press; Chattanooga Times Free Press; Knoxville News Sentinel; The Commercial Appeal in Memphis and television stations in Nashville and Knoxville.
Duane W. Gang contributed to this report.