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Newspapers: Florida autopsy-photo law is unjustified, overbroad

By The Associated Press

08.31.01

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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Two newspapers are asking a court to declare unconstitutional a state law barring access to autopsy photographs without a judge's permission.

The Orlando Sentinel and the Sun-Sentinel of South Florida filed a motion Aug. 29 in Florida Circuit Court in Fort Lauderdale arguing that the law is unjustified, too broad and fails to accomplish its stated purpose. The law was adopted in March after the death of race car legend Dale Earnhardt during this year's Daytona 500.

The Sentinel, which had just published a series on NASCAR driver safety before the race, sought access to Earnhardt's autopsy photos so its experts could review how he died.

Earnhardt's widow pushed for the law, saying a public viewing of the photos would violate her family's right to privacy.

The paper said it did not intend to publish the photos, and its expert was eventually allowed to view them under an agreement with Earnhardt's family.

Two other media outlets — the Independent Florida Alligator, a student-run newspaper at the University of Florida, and a Web site, Websitecity.com — have also sought access to the photos. Websitecity.com has posted autopsy photos of other NASCAR drivers.

In June, a circuit judge in Daytona Beach refused a request by the Alligator and Websitecity.com to release the Earnhardt photos. The judge also upheld the constitutionality of the autopsy-photo law.

Earlier this month, the Alligator filed a notice that it planned to appeal the judge's ruling.

Meanwhile, the Aug. 29 motion was filed as part of a lawsuit by the Tribune Co. newspapers against the Broward medical examiner after he refused to allow access to photos of people who died last year without identification or in car accidents and correctional facilities.

Other newspapers have since joined the suit. A hearing has been set for Oct. 23.

Gregg Thomas, an attorney representing the Tribune newspapers, said the law has unintended consequences, such as making it almost impossible for medical school professors to show autopsy photos to their classes.

It also targets a problem that doesn't exist, he said.

"There has never been an incident where a journalist improperly used a photograph in the state of Florida," Thomas said.

The law's sponsor, state Sen. Jim King, said autopsy photos of President Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and others are on the Internet and the Legislature believes that is wrong.

He said if journalists or others have a legitimate reason for viewing autopsy photos, it shouldn't be difficult to convince a judge.

"In the name of decorum and family privacy, not everybody should have access to autopsy photos," King said.

Update

Florida court questions restrictions on autopsy photos
Judge says state's open-records statute may trump a family's pain in having pictures made public.  03.06.02

Previous

News outlets ask to join challenge of Florida autopsy-photo law
Attorney says there is ‘widespread newspaper support’ for lawsuit questioning constitutionality of recently passed statute.  04.19.01

Related

Student newspaper to appeal Earnhardt-photo ruling
Attorney plans to argue that Florida Legislature violated due process by creating a retroactive exemption to state’s open-records law for autopsy photos.  08.08.01

Earnhardt autopsy photos are public record
By Ken Paulson Why the rush to change Florida law? Public’s demand to stop press from doing its job should worry us all.  04.08.01

Press advocates ask court to overturn Florida autopsy-photo law
Five groups file brief supporting student newspaper's appeal in case involving Dale Earnhardt's photographs.  11.21.01

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