Tennessee's 'Secret Rape' Law Is Just as Stupid as it Sounds


Police in Tennessee have proposed a law that could make all details of rape cases — even the fact that a rape was committed in the first place — secret until the trial of the accused. Great news for police stations who can avoid being egged in the face by critical press; bad news for women who, you know, might want to know if a serial rapist is on the loose in their neighborhood or on their campus. If a rape happens in the woods and no one is allowed to know it happened, do Tennessee cops still suck at their jobs?

On its surface, the bill proposed by Sen Becky Duncan Massey of Knoxville, doesn’t sound terrible; according to The Tennessean, the law would make it illegal for the name of rape victims to be discussed outside of police departments. Good stuff, albeit unnecessary. No major news outlet in Tennessee, as a matter of practice, publishes the names of rape victims unless the victim specifically allows them to.

But Duncan Massey’s legislation doesn’t stop there. The bill would also make it verboten to “disclose any portion of a report, paper, picture, photograph, video, court file or other document which tends to identify such alleged victim.” This means that the law could make life more dangerous for women who probably would want to know if there were a rapist running amok in their neighborhoods. It also could make it illegal for defense attorneys to discuss details of the crime with people accused of committing the crime, thus robbing the accused of a fair trial. Here’s more on that:

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.”

It’s a dumb bill!

How would the bill endanger the public? According to a scathing op-ed in The Tennessean, the Secret Rape bill is written in such a way that would prevent police from informing the press or the public of details that could keep potential victims of serial rapists safe until the perpetrator can be apprehended. One fairly recent example of that is the “woodland rapist,” who would attack women in their homes on rainy nights and tended to gravitate toward houses at the edge of wooded areas. The perpetrator was caught lurking around a residential area on a rainy evening because a member of the public — a member of the public who knew this guy’s modus operandi because the media made sure the public was aware — called it in. The bill as written, argues the Tennessean op-ed, would have restricted what police were allowed to share with the public in the case of the woodland rapist and directly endangered the public.

And there’s also this: the timing of the bill’s filing corresponds a little too neatly with a lawsuit filed by several press organizations against the Metro Police after they refused to release details of the investigation into sexual assault allegations against four Vanderbilt University football players last summer. In fact, the Tennessean op-ed surmises that even though the Metro Police and State Sen. Duncan Massey swear up and down that the press lawsuit against the police and the police-penned bill against the press have nothing to do with each other, you’d have to be an idiot to not put two and two together

Under this law — filed to get even with news organizations, including The Tennessean — all details of sexual assault crimes would be secret unless they came out at trial. It’s a bad bill, filed for narrow-minded reasons.
Is it aimed at Tennessee news organizations? Well, coincidentally, just days before the legislation was filed, The Tennessean and a coalition of media from across the state sued the Metro Police Department and Vanderbilt University, seeking information about the Vanderbilt rape case. Four former football players are charged with brutally raping a female student while she was unconscious. Despite numerous requests by The Tennessean to see records in the case, Metro has refused.

Well, I, for one, am shocked — SHOCKED — that a police department would prioritize preserving its reputation and the reputation of a Division 1 college football program over keeping women safe from rape and sexual assau— ahahaha. Just kidding. The real tragedy of this story is how patently unshocking it is. And how Olympically shitty it is that cops in a state that recently made news for failing to test rape kits would be so eager to make it more difficult to apprehend rapists.

Image via Shutterstock

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