A conservative political commentator published three photographs on Monday that appeared to show excerpts from writings by the shooter who killed six people at a Nashville Christian school, enraging parents of the surviving students and prompting an investigation into the leak.
For months there has been a court battle over whether any of the assailant’s writings should be released, with the families of about 100 students who survived the shooting at the Covenant School in March having sought to prevent their publication.
The larger trove of documents — which one city official quantified in court as “voluminous” — has remained with the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department as the legal battle winds its way through the courts. But on Monday, Steven Crowder, the political commentator, published three photos of handwritten notebook pages that appeared to have been left behind by the shooter and reflected a hateful, calculated plan to target the private school and its students.
The Police Department later confirmed that it was involved in the investigation into “the dissemination of three photographs of writings,” adding that the photos in question were not formal “crime scene images.”
The release of the images was hailed by high-profile conservative lawmakers in Tennessee and on Capitol Hill, who have said that keeping the writings from public view was akin to a cover-up. In a video discussing the images, Mr. Crowder said his staff had reviewed the photographs from an undisclosed source and had worked to verify their authenticity, framing their release in part as an effort to force transparency.
But his move stunned city officials, leading Mayor Freddie O’Connell, who was sworn in to his role in late September, to order an investigation into how the images had been released.
Wally Dietz, the law director for the Nashville metro government, who is responsible for overseeing the investigation, said on Monday that he had “limited information about this possible leak of documents.”
And it enraged and horrified the parents of the surviving students, who said they feared what other information might be divulged.
“The damage done today is already significant, and I’m worried it’s only going to grow,” said Brent Leatherwood, a parent of three Covenant students. He at times held back tears as he spoke inside Woodmont Baptist Church, where he and other parents had reunited with their children in the hours after the violence.
He called whoever had leaked the photos “a viper” who had allowed someone “who terrorized our family with bullets to be able to now terrorize us with words from the grave.”
The March 27 shooting at the Covenant School was the deadliest school shooting this year in the United States, leaving three 9-year-old children and three adults dead and shattering the sanctity of a quiet, Christian community tucked in the city’s Green Hills neighborhood. The police killed the assailant, who was armed with two assault-style weapons and a handgun, about 14 minutes after the first 911 call.
The authorities said that the assailant, a 28-year-old former student of the school, had bought weapons legally while under treatment for an emotional disorder and had “considered the actions of other mass murderers.”
But seven months after the violence, a motive remains unclear. That has led journalists, lawmakers and gun rights activists to push for details from the writings left behind in the shooter’s car and home, particularly as the Tennessee legislature remains deadlocked on how to address gun violence.
Right-wing activists have long focused on the assailant’s gender identity as a possible factor in the violence. (Police officials said the shooter identified as transgender but have not said there is any evidence that that had contributed to the motivation.)
On Monday, Senator J.D. Vance, Republican of Ohio, and the billionaire Elon Musk were among those who seized on a mention of white privilege in the published excerpts to argue that the shooter, who was white, was carrying out anti-white violence.
Several news outlets, including The Tennessean; at least one state lawmaker; and gun rights groups sued for the release of the documents after their requests were stonewalled during what police officials said was an ongoing investigation.
Republicans and gun rights groups said it was necessary to understand what had led to the shooting as calls for tightened gun laws grew in the months after the shooting. Lawyers for the news outlets also warned against weakening of public records laws in Tennessee and of infringements on the outlets’ First Amendment rights.
But the parents of surviving Covenant School students, as well as the school itself and the adjoining church on the campus, asked a judge to allow them to participate in the lawsuit and argue against the release of the writings. In court filings, the parents detailed the pervasive trauma that had upended their children’s lives and pleaded against releasing any information that could jeopardize their efforts to heal.
Experts have also cited research centered on the notoriety of the two gunmen responsible for the deadly violence at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999. Fueled by the repeated publication of the men’s faces and motivations, it has spawned what is now known as the Columbine effect, in which other troubled young people have turned to the gunmen as a source of sinister inspiration for achieving infamy.
Social media has increasingly allowed other mass shooters to leave behind an instantly accessible online trail of hate and bigotry to explain their intent, as in the attacks in Buffalo and in El Paso. But the shooter in Nashville had a limited social media presence, heightening the interest in the writings.
The legal case in Nashville remains in limbo. Mr. Leatherwood said he believed the publication of the excerpts had reinforced the parents’ arguments, but he did not say whether the parents would take additional legal action.
The release of the documents was further complicated over the summer when the parents of the assailant agreed to give legal ownership of the writings to the families of the Covenant School students. (The writings were already in police possession after being collected as evidence but legally belonged to the shooter’s closest surviving relatives.)
“We did not release these, nor have we ever seen any of the papers,” said David Raybin, a lawyer representing Ronald and Norma Hale, the parents of the shooter. Citing the ongoing litigation, he declined to comment further.