Florida student newspaper receives College Press Freedom Award

For Immediate ReleaseARLINGTON, Va. — A Floridacollege student newspaper that has battled to keep public records open despiteintense opposition has been named the recipient of the 2003 College PressFreedom Award.The award to The Independent Florida Alligator, astudent newspaper at the University of Florida, was presented at the AssociatedCollegiate Press/College Media Advisers national convention in Dallas onSaturday, Nov. 8.The award, sponsored by the Student Press Law Centerand the Associated Collegiate Press, is given each year to a college studentjournalist or student news organization that has demonstrated outstandingsupport for the free press rights of students.For the last two years,The Independent has fought to prevent Florida courts from permanentlysealing the autopsy photos of race car driver Dale Earnhardt and from enforcinga law, passed two months after his death, that allows Florida state officialsand judges to determine the editorial appropriateness of a freedom ofinformation request before making government documents available.Thenewspaper contends that the law sets a dangerous precedent and violates theFirst Amendment because it allows courts to grant or deny access to publicrecords based on a speaker’s viewpoint.In September, The IndependentFlorida Alligator appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in a final effort topreserve public access to the photos. It is appealing a Florida state court’sruling that denied the newspaper’s request.Earnhardt, a seven-timeNASCAR Winston Cup champion, was killed Feb. 18, 2001, when his car hit the wallon the final turn at the Daytona 500.Following the crash, there wasconsiderable speculation about how Earnhardt had died. At the time, many arguedthat having an expert review the photos could help determine whether bettersafety equipment, which was not required by NASCAR, could have saved thedriver’s life.The newspaper’s legal challenge has been vehementlydenounced, especially by NASCAR fans who have bombarded the newspaper and itsattorneys with angry e-mails and telephone calls. While The Independenthas always maintained that it has no interest in publishing or even possessingcopies of the autopsy photos, rumors about how the photos would be used by themedia sparked considerable outrage.The newspaper’s building has beenvandalized, newsracks destroyed and newspapers set on fire. Staff members havereceived multiple death threats, including one, directed to the newspaper’smanaging editor, that threatened to ”kill you and your whole staff and putyour autopsy photos on the Internet.”But for over two years, thestudent newspaper has persevered in its efforts, something that has impressedmany. “While it may not be popular, the fact is that autopsy photoshave historically played a critical role in press reports about murders, medicalmalpractice, prison deaths and other public controversies,” said Mark Goodman,executive director of the Student Press Law Center.”That TheIndependent Florida Alligator was willing to stand up — alone –in the face of intense public criticism and physical threats for a principle itbelieved in should serve as an inspiration to all journalists,” said Goodman.”Anyone can fight for what is popular. True courage is demonstrated when youdare to stand for what is not.”###Founded in 1921, the NationalScholastic Press Association and it’s college division, the AssociatedCollegiate Press, provide rating services and critical analyses for print andelectronic student news media and sponsor the largest annual nationalconventions for student journalists and their advisers.Since itsfounding in 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been the only nationalorganization exclusively devoted to providing free legal advice and assistanceto student journalists and advisers and serving as an advocate for their freepress and freedom of information rights.For additional informationcontact:Mark Goodman, Executive Director, Student Press Law Center(703)807-1904

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