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High court declines to hear autopsy appeal

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    News Media Update         FLORIDA         Freedom of Information    

High court declines to hear autopsy appeal

  • The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of a student newspaper denied access under the state Public Records Law to race car driver Dale Earnhardt’s autopsy photographs.

Dec. 4, 2003 — The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to hear the appeal of a student newspaper denied access to the autopsy photos of former professional race car driver Dale Earnhardt, who was killed in a crash during the final lap of the Daytona 500 in February 2001.

The Independent Florida Alligator, a student newspaper at the University of Florida, requested the autopsy photos from the Volusia County medical examiner under the state’s Public Records Law. Questions had been raised about the adequacy of NASCAR’s safety equipment, and the paper wanted the photos for a story on the accuracy of the autopsy report and investigation of the accident.

Autopsy photos were public records under the law, but the medical examiner refused to turn them over, at the request of Earnhardt’s widow, because it would violate the family’s right to privacy.

The Alligator sued for access, but while the suit was pending the Florida legislature amended the Public Records Law. Under the new law, enacted March 29, 2001, autopsy photographs are no longer public and may only be accessed by petitioning a court and demonstrating “good cause.”

Applying the law retroactively to the Alligator‘s lawsuit, the trial court denied access, finding that the newspaper’s requests for the photos were “thinly veiled excuses to gain access to the court either for the purpose of arguing the constitutionality of the statute or for making a profit at the expense of this family.”

The ruling was upheld by an appeals court, and the Florida Supreme Court declined in July 2003 to hear the case. The Alligator appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, alleging that Florida’s new law violated First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

In briefs to the Court, the paper argued that the statute’s “good cause” standard allowed a judge to determine access to photos based on the requestor’s viewpoint, which the Court held as impermissible in the 1999 case Los Angeles Police Department v. United Reporting Publishing Corp. Furthermore, in making the “good cause” determination, the statute allowed a judge to decide issues of public access based on his or her personal opinion of the merits of the publication.

The newspaper argued that the trial judge had done exactly that in this case, by rejecting the Alligator‘s stated purpose of reviewing the adequacy of the investigations.

Finally, the newspaper argued that because autopsy photos had been public documents, “The Florida Legislature’s decision to remove autopsy photographs from public view is directly analogous to a governmental decision to remove thousands of books from public library shelves because the government believes that the contents of the books are no longer suitable for the public.”

The Orlando Sentinel had previously sought the photos for a story on racing safety. A lawsuit filed by the Sentinel was settled under an agreement by which an independent medical expert would evaluate the photos and report to the paper, but neither the paper nor the public would have access to them.

“The Earnhardt case is done. It’s over,” Parker Thompson, attorney for Earnhardt’s widow, Teresa, told the Sentinel Tuesday.

In another case, the Earnhardts filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in a lawsuit for access to photos of the death scene of Vince Foster, who served as a deputy counsel for former President Bill Clinton and committed suicide in July 1993. The Earnhardts are supporting Foster’s family, who claims that release of the photos would be an invasion of their right to privacy.

(Campus Communications, Inc. v. Earnhardt, Media Counsel: Thomas R. Julin, Hunton & Williams, LLP, Miami) GP

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© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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