Judd Seeks New Privacy, Reporting Standards When It Comes to Suicide
WASHINGTON — It was the nightmare behind a tragedy she never saw coming.
Ashley Judd’s voice still quivered noticeably at times as she recounted the events of April 30, 2022, and the weeks and months that followed before a large and attentive audience at the National Press Club Tuesday afternoon.
It was late that April morning that the actress and activist’s mother, Country Hall of Famer and multi-Grammy winner Naomi Judd, died by suicide after years of mental health struggles.
“The trauma of discovering and then holding her laboring body haunts my nights,” her daughter said Tuesday, repeating a line she’d originally used in an op-ed in The New York Times.
But it was her family’s searing experience with investigators, reporters, the courts and the law that brought her to Washington this week to advocate for new standards of privacy and decency when it comes to suicide.
“She was a good mother,” Ashley Judd said as she recalled the many highs and humorous times of her mother’s life.
Much of what Judd shared is well known — how Naomi Judd was born and grew up in Ashland, Kentucky, a small coal town in Appalachia, and how, after discovering the musical gifts of her daughter Wynonna — Ashley’s half-sister — she propelled herself and her daughters to a life that would have been unimaginable without her drive.
Recalling other facets of her mother made Judd beam behind the podium.
“She was totally extraordinary,” her daughter said. “On the one hand, she was lauded by millions for her music, and on the other, she’s keeping company with Nobel laureates and the pioneers of science. These folks were her friends and her conversation partners.
“She was besotted with neuroscience and kept fat volumes, which she read daily, on her bedside table,” Judd said. “And she was also my mom. She was soft and she smelled pretty. Her smile melted me and she hugged me all the time.
“And she had a disease that lied to her. There was an unfair illness that lived rent free in her head and caused her irreparable suffering and eventually made her hurt so badly that she believed on that day that she would only get worse and never better. Her disease was a thief. It took her hope and it took her life,” Judd continued. “Everyone deserves to be remembered for how they lived, not by what happened on the day they died.”
And yet it was precisely what happened on that day that brought Judd, who became a Hollywood star after being cast as the title character in the 1993 film, “Ruby in Paradise,” and later starred in “Kiss the Girls,” “Where the Heart Is” and the “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.”
Judd recalled the scene as first responders arrived in her stepfather’s bedroom.
“The energy in that room shifted radically,” she said.
Knowing her mother was dying, Ashley Judd spoke of wishing for a more tranquil setting for her mother’s “transition … to the infinite presence of God.”
Instead, she and Larry Strickland, Naomi Judd’s husband of 33 years, were “bombarded” with questions and the “lumbering intrusion of non-trauma informed police and EMT.”
“The sheriff insisted on starting to question me right then and there,” Judd said. “Clumsy people clambered over this delicate space. … But this is not their fault. This is how they were trained … or perhaps we could say, ‘how they were not trained’ to deal with people experiencing the most profound distress of their lives.
“I was interrogated three more times, and not once was it suggested that I had any rights or choice in the matter,” she continued. “Not once was I asked if I needed to collect my thoughts or if I wanted to defer answering questions to a later time. Not once was I asked if I wanted to comfort anyone else who was present or even offered a glass of water.
“Instead, I was just pushed, with question after question about what drove my mother to do it … forced to answer these bewildering questions on the most shocking day of my life,” she added.
It was only later, and to Judd’s complete surprise, shock and dismay that she learned everything she and Strickland had said at the scene of her mother’s death that day had been recorded on the responding officers’ body cams.
“Crucially, I also had no idea everything I was saying in the state of Tennessee was public record,” she said.
Days later, the police record of the death investigation was made public. Included in the police file were body cam footage including interviews Judd and others had given at the scene, photos of the interior of Naomi’s home, images of the gun used, the Post-it suicide note the singer left at the scene, the recording of Ashley Judd’s initial 911 call and even text messages exchanged between Ashley Judd and the family psychologist.
In Tennessee and many other states, the public records law typically allows local law enforcement records to be released, though police are often given the discretion to hold records while an investigation is ongoing.
In Tennessee and elsewhere, however, that exemption does not apply once an investigation is closed.
Judd, her sister Wynonna and Strickland quickly filed a petition in Tennessee asking to seal police reports and recordings from the investigation into Naomi Judd’s death, arguing they would cause “significant trauma and irreparable harm.”
The court dismissed the case in part because the family did not cite the media as a plaintiff.
“That was never our intention,” Judd said. “The media is not our adversary; you are our ally.”
What Judd and her family wanted was a new legal standard for when records should be made public.
Instead, before and after the court ruling, members of the media requested the police report and all its contents.
“And the consequence of this is that photographs of my mother’s death by suicide, in her bed, now live forever in perpetuity on the internet,” Judd said.
Acknowledging the venue in which she was speaking, Judd said she was there to “exhort the media to hold itself to the reporting standards established by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“These evidence-based and data-informed standards are already included in most of your style manuals, but I’m here to remind you the media has a grave responsibility and to encourage those who are not yet following these standards to hold themselves accountable and do so,” she said.
As one example of the standard, Judd said reporters and editors should report that someone “died by suicide” rather than “committed suicide,” noting that the word “committed” was appended to the act of suicide by the Catholic Church long ago, deeming suicide a sin.
Another rule of thumb is never to refer to someone has having “succeeded” in taking their own life by suicide.
Judd said the precision of language is critical as hundreds of studies have shown that reports of suicide — particularly celebrity suicides — tend to act as a contagion and inspire copycat deaths.
Madelyn Gould, Ph.D., the Irving Philips professor of Epidemiology in Psychiatry at Columbia University, has extensively documented the phenomenon of suicide contagion for media coverage and was cited by Judd.
Gould’s conclusion is that “media coverage of suicides has been shown to significantly increase the rate of suicide. And the magnitude of the increase is related to the amount, duration and prominence of coverage.”
“When someone who has thought about suicide before and sees someone else take their life, it becomes more accessible, that becomes more doable, it becomes normalized. And so we have to be really cautious about where and how we talk about it,” Judd said.
She also asked reporters and editors to think twice about what they report when they do a story on suicide, and how much of what they are including is just salacious, serving no public good.
“Just because a police report is a public record does not mean you should broadcast or print everything it contains,” she said. “While the law does not constrain you from doing so, common sense and basic decency should.”
Judd said because, like most everyone else, she was raised to respect and respond to police questioning, she revealed intimate medical details and other information that in any other setting would have been protected by HIPAA.
As a result of not knowing she was being recorded or the nature of Tennessee’s public records law, Judd said she talked openly about “profoundly intimate details of my mom’s mental health condition the morning she took her own life … and our lawsuit argued this should not be fodder for public consumption or the grist for gossip.”
Of the judge’s decision to dismiss the case, Judd added: “We were treated badly during the legal process.”
“Our family lives with the permanent tragedy of the loss of our matriarch. And because certain media published the bloody images of her death and our interviews, we live with a form of public violence. It complicates and compounds our lifelong grief.”
Unable to prevail in court, Judd and her family are now hoping to change Tennessee’s public records law.
“We call our proposed legislation Naomi’s Law, and we believe it to be straightforward, simple, respectful and obvious,” she said.
The proposed law states that, “If a county medical examiner investigating a death determines that the death was the result of a suicide, then the medical records, law enforcement investigative records, 911 call recordings, photographs, and any other recordings related to the death held by any government agency are not public records and shall not be released by a governmental agency.”
Judd said the bill is expected to be taken up by the Tennessee Legislature during its upcoming summer session, but she said it is already getting “major pushback” from lobbyists, many of them representing the media.
She also said she understands that pushback since news organizations, generally, are against “anything that shuts down open records at all.”
But she also rejects the notion that shielding records related to a suicide would wind up being “some kind of slippery slope.”
“We acknowledge that there are people who want to take transparency to an extreme,” she said.
“That’s why we’ve made a real effort to make this a very narrow section of the public records law that we are dealing with. This is only dealing with the situation around suicide. We’re not expanding beyond that,” Judd said.
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