Death threats, vandalism tail student newspaper’s drive for autopsy photos

FLORIDA — A student newspaper’s attempts to access the autopsy photos of race car driver Dale Earnhardt has left its editors facing death threats and vandalism from people who want the paper to drop its pursuit of the records.

The Independent Florida Alligator, the student newspaper at the University of Florida, has been trying to access the photos since March. Earnhardt died Feb. 18 while competing in the Daytona 500.

The suit sought to stop the enforcement of the Earnhardt Family Protection Act, which makes it a felony for anyone outside of a deceased person’s family or law enforcement to access autopsy photos without a judge’s permission. Florida Circuit Court Judge Joseph Will upheld the new law and allowed the photos to be kept sealed.

Alligator managing editor Trey Csar said the threats began when the paper got involved in the case and have mostly come through e-mail.

‘We really see e-mail as a valuable tool in the fact that all the people that disagree with us all manage to get those emotions out in a way that’s just words,’ Csar said. ‘Because of that, we’ve taken very few of them as literal threats.’

Csar said the e-mails continued even after the June ruling to keep the photos sealed. The Alligator appealed that decision to the 5th District Court of Appeal in August.

Csar called most of the threats ‘random acts, but concerning acts nonetheless.’ He said he has received e-mails addressed to him threatening to ‘kill you and your whole staff and put your autopsy photos on the Internet.’

The Alligator has also been the target of several acts of vandalism.

Last spring, the staff found the front of their building sprayed with ketchup, which they think was meant to symbolize blood, Csar said.

News racks have also been vandalized. Some were taped shut with signs urging people to ‘Boycott the Alligator! and ‘Support Dale Earnhardt!’ Others were torched when someone lit the newspapers inside on fire.

A message board on the newspaper’s Web site receives postings almost daily that berate the paper for attempting to access the photos. One posting calls for laws similar to the Earnhardt Family Protection Act to be passed in every state.

‘It’s going to take more then a few [hundred people] to get this law passed in all states. So please join and be a part of history in the making,’ a July posting says.

Other postings convey some people’s fear that if the Alligator gets access to Earnhardt’s autopsy photos, it will publish them to make a profit.

‘No one should be allowed to make a profit from someone’s misfortune,’ another July posting says. ‘The problem with this is that with these records being public it allows greed to take over, and people misuse the information for their own gain which is wrong.’

But Csar says the paper has no plans to publish the photos if it is granted access to them.

‘There are circumstances where something like that might be necessary, but we can’t imagine one in this specific circumstance where it would,’ Csar said. He said the paper is seeking the photos because the editors believe the new Earnhardt law violates basic rights for public access.

Advocates for public access also say they want the photos released so that questions about the cause of Earnhardt’s death can be answered.

‘If a death resulted from an accident or incident that was so violent or suspicious that an autopsy by a public agency is deemed necessary to determine the cause, the public has a right to know what that cause was,’ said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Csar said that the threats and vandalism have not deterred the Alligator staff from pursuing the release of the photos.

‘In our view, while we may not be pursuing a popular option, we are pursuing an option that is right both for our profession and for us personally,’ Csar said.