The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today urged Florida officials to allow a medical expert hired by the Orlando Sentinel to view Dale Earnhardt’s autopsy photographs. The Committee also protested the state legislature’s proposed bill to limit access to autopsy photographs.
“Florida has always been a leader in terms of access to public records,” said Lucy Dalglish, Reporters Committee Executive Director. “We understand that fans are mourning the death of Dale Earnhardt, but photographs of autopsies performed by Florida’s state medical examiners were determined years ago to be public records — and for good reason. If a death resulted from an accident or incident that was so violent or suspicious that an autopsy by a public agency was deemed necessary to determine the cause, the public has a right to know what that cause was.”
Access to Earnhardt’s autopsy photographs became an issue when the Orlando Sentinel sought access to the photographs. On February 11, one week before Earnhardt’s death, the Sentinel began publishing a two-day series of articles on NASCAR safety. The articles quoted numerous sources that said three other deaths of NASCAR drivers in the previous year due to basal skull fractures may have been prevented if the drivers had worn a head restraint device known as “HANS.” The initial report from the medical examiner’s office said Earnhardt, who was not wearing a HANS device, died from a basal skull fracture when his head whip-lashed violently. NASCAR officials reported that Earnhardt died when his seat belt failed and his face hit the steering column.
The Sentinel hired a medical expert to review the photographs in an independent effort to determine whether Earnhardt’s death could have been prevented if he had been wearing a head-restraint device. Earnhardt’s widow, Teresa, filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction to prevent the newspaper’s expert from viewing the photographs. The court granted the injunction, finding that there was a privacy interest at stake that outweighed the public interest in the photos. Some state legislators have since proposed a bill that would limit access to autopsy photographs in general.
“With all due respect to Dale Earnhardt’s family and fans, anyone who read the Sentinel’s in-depth series on NASCAR safety understands there are genuine safety issues involved in this case,” Dalglish stated. “It is a legitimate role of a newspaper to investigate whether NASCAR has ignored safety devices that could save lives. It is clear that the photos are not going to be published but rather used as part of a safety investigation. A claim of “privacy” should not be used to hinder the investigation.”
The tension between access to records held by the government and “privacy” concerns is not new. Months ago, Firestone claimed that court records concerning its failed tires should not be available to the public because of its private interests. However, a Florida court nevertheless ordered that the records be released because of the overwhelming interest in public safety.
“Freedom of Information laws are premised on the belief that society as a whole benefits when people are educated and informed,” Dalglish said. “In this case, the autopsy photos can help determine whether a safety device in race cars could save more lives.”
The Reporters Committee is a nonprofit organization legal defense organization for journalists that also counsels on First Amendment and Freedom of Information issues.