Alligator crawls into autopsy photo swamp

FLORIDA — The University of Florida student newspaper stepped intothe legal arena built around legendary NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt’s autopsyphotos in March to challenge a settlement made between Earnhardt’s widowand the Orlando Sentinel.

That settlement allowed the Sentinel to have an independent medicalexaminer evaluate photographs from Earnhardt’s autopsy, after which thephotos were to be sealed. But the Independent Florida Alligatorfiled a motion to set aside that agreement so it could gain access to thephotos, and a judge agreed April 5 that the student newspaper could intervenein the case.

The Alligator also filed suit challenging the constitutionalityof a law signed by Gov. Jeb Bush on March 29 exempting autopsy photos fromFlorida’s public-records law, arguing the law violates both the U.S. Constitutionand the state constitution. The law was introduced in response to TeresaEarnhardt’s request for legislation that would prevent the Sentinelfrom accessing the photos of her dead husband.

Tom Julin, the Alligator’s attorney, said he believes the newspaperwill face less public pressure than the Sentinel did from subscribersand advertisers.

“The Alligator is not as easily targeted by NASCAR fans and advertisersto try to force it to give up its position. The Sentinel was undervery heavy financial pressure to end its suit quickly,” he said.

Trey Csar, managing editor of the Alligator, said the paper’sstaff believes the photos are public records.

“I think we’re definitely on the right side of principle,” he said.

He also said the paper’s main concern is the broader issue of whetherthe new law is constitutional.

Julin said that under Florida’s constitution, exemptions to the public-recordslaw must state specifically what public necessity justifies creating anexemption and must be no broader than necessary.

“I don’t think this law meets either of those criteria,” Csar said.

Julin said the implications of the law are even broader.

“It potentially is a very important case because what Teresa Earnhardtis claiming in the case is that she has a constitutional right to stopa public official from complying with the public-records law,” he said.”She’s saying that ‘I can come in and stop the medical examiner from complyingwith the requirements of the statute, and the basis of doing that is notthat I have a personal privacy interest in those records myself, but thatthe disclosure of those records to journalists — simply making them availablefor viewing or copying — upsets me.'”

No dates have been set for subsequent hearings, but Csar said he expectsthem to begin in May.

Julin said this case illustrates the opportunity student journalistshave to shape and defend the law.

“The student press has a very important role to play in the law,” hesaid. “Student journalists frequently can advocate positions that othermedia are unwilling to advocate or simply are facing too much financialpressure to maintain.”