Supreme Court declines to hear appeal in Earnhardt autopsy photo case

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court todaydeclined to hear an appeal by the University of Florida student newspaper toreconsider a lower court’s ruling that kept records of racecar driver DaleEarnhardt’s autopsy private.The Supreme Court’s decision will likely endan almost three-year battle between the student newspaper and the Earnhardt familyand state Legislature. The Independent Florida Alligatorasked the high court in September to hear its case, which challenged a Floridalaw passed after Earnhardt’s death that barred public access to autopsyphotographs.The Supreme Court did not give a reason for declining tohear the case. In the newspaper’s petition to the Supreme Court,lawyers argued that the Florida law violates the First Amendment and isunnecessarily broad.One month after Earnhardt’s fatal crash at theDaytona 500 in February 2001, Gov. Jeb Bush approved the Earnhardt FamilyProtection Act. The law, implemented at the behest of Earnhardt’s wife, TeresaEarnhardt, restricts access to all videos, photos and audio recordings takenduring autopsies unless a court rules the requester’s intentions trump thefamily’s right to privacy.Autopsy records were previously accessibleunder Florida’s Public Records Act.In September, Patricia Walker, one ofthe newspaper’s lawyers, said the law violates the First Amendment because itallows courts to grant or deny access to public records based on a speaker’sviewpoint. The Independent Florida Alligator did not tell the court whythey wanted the photos because it did not want the court to make a valuejudgment on its intentions, Walker said. Lawyers for the newspapercould not immediately be reached for comment. A Florida appeals courtruled in July 2002 that the Earnhardt act was not too broad and that theEarnhardt family’s right to privacy outweighed the public’s right to know,although the court did not consider the newspaper’s First Amendment arguments.The Florida Supreme Court declined to hear the case in July, prompting thenewspaper’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in September. TheIndependent Florida Alligator was awarded the 2003 College Press FreedomAward by the Student Press Law Center and the Associated Collegiate Press forits battle to keep public records open despite intense opposition in theEarnhardt case.

Campus Communications v. Earnhardt, 03-484
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