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Governor signs law limiting access to autopsy photos

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    NMU         FLORIDA         Freedom of Information         Apr 2, 2001    

Governor signs law limiting access to autopsy photos

  • In response to overwhelming public outcry following the death of racing star Dale Earnhardt, the Florida legislature passed a law requiring a judge to approve any access to autopsy photographs, which had clearly been open under the state’s sunshine law.

Gov. Jeb Bush on March 30 signed into law a bill that requires a judge’s permission to gain access to autopsy photographs, which were formerly public record under Florida law.

The Orlando Sentinel, The Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Tampa Tribune, WFLA-TV, The Independent Florida Alligator, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the American Society of Newspaper Editors all opposed the bill because it cripples the news media’s ability to determine a true cause of death in cases of public importance.

The media consortium argued that it was crucial to know what killed Earnhardt in order to effectively report on the safety of auto racing. In the 10 months before Earnhardt’s death, three other NASCAR drivers died in accidents on the racing circuit. Many safety experts believe that a head and neck support device would have prevented the deaths. The device is available to drivers even though its use is not mandatory under state law.

The bill made it through the Florida legislature in record time, largely due to the legislature’s being swamped with phone calls from NASCAR fans who did not want the photographs of Earnhardt released. All 40 state senators voted in favor of the bill, just 21 days after its introduction in the House. The bill was presented to and signed by Bush less than six hours later, with Earnhardt’s widow, Teresa, in attendance.

The Orlando Sentinel and its sister paper the South Florida Sun-Sentinel have already filed public records requests for the autopsy reports under the new law and have vowed to challenge the law in court.

Similar bills have popped up in other states in reaction to the Earnhardt controversy. The legislatures in South Carolina and Louisiana are considering similar bills and a bill in Georgia only needs the governor’s signature before it will take effect.

(HB 1083) CC

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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