Journalism organizations challenge Florida law restricting autopsy photos

VIRGINIA — The Student Press Law Center and four otherjournalism groups filed a friend-of-the-court legal brief Mondaythat questions the constitutionality of Florida’s Earnhardt FamilyProtection Act.

The Florida Legislature passed the law in March, restrictingthe release of autopsy photos. The measure came in response tothe Orlando Sentinel‘s request to see photos ofNASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt, who died at the Daytona 500.

The Independent Florida Alligator, the student newspaperat the University of Florida, had also sought access the photos.In June, Circuit Judge Joseph Will ruled the law was constitutionaland denied the Alligator‘s request.

In the appeal, the Alligator and the journalism groupsargue the law violates the state constitution’s Sunshine Law Amendment,which grants the public access to governmental records.

The legal brief highlights the importance of public records,which serve as the means for holding government agencies accountablefor their actions. "There is no common law right of privacy in public records,no state constitutional right of privacy in public records, andno federal right of privacy in public records," the briefstates. "A medical examiner is a public official performinghis public duties when he conducts an autopsy, and the photographsof that autopsy are the visual records of the performance of thatgovernment function."

The appeal is being heard in the Fifth District Court of Appealin Daytona Beach.

Read our previous coverage.Student newspaper loses battle for access to autopsy photos News Flash, 6/18/01Alligator crawls into autopsy photo swamp Report, Spring 2001Death threats, vandalism tail student newspaper