Supreme Court declines to hear appeal in Earnhardt autopsy photo case

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear an appealby the University of Florida student newspaper to reconsider a lower court’sruling that kept records of race car driver Dale Earnhardt’s autopsyprivate.

The Supreme Court’s Dec. 1 decision will likely end an almostthree-year battle between the student newspaper and the Earnhardt family andstate Legislature.

The Independent Florida Alligator asked thehigh court in September to hear its case, which challenged a Florida law passedafter Earnhardt’s death that barred public access to autopsyphotographs.

The Supreme Court did not give a reason for declining tohear the case.

One month after Earnhardt’s fatal crash at the Daytona 500in February 2001, Gov. Jeb Bush approved the Earnhardt Family Protection Act.The law, implemented at the behest of Earnhardt’s wife, Teresa Earnhardt,restricts access to all videos, photos and audio recordings taken duringautopsies unless a court rules the requester’s intentions trump the family’sright to privacy.

Autopsy records were previously accessible underFlorida’s Public Records Act.

In the newspaper’s petition to the Court,lawyers argued that the Florida law is unnecessarily broad and violates theFirst Amendment because it allows courts to grant or deny access to publicrecords based on a speaker’s viewpoint.

A Florida appeals court ruled inJuly 2002 that the Earnhardt act was not too broad and that the Earnhardtfamily’s right to privacy outweighed the public’s right to know, although thecourt did not consider the newspaper’s First Amendment arguments. The FloridaSupreme Court declined to hear the case in July, prompting the newspaper’sappeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in September.

The Independent FloridaAlligator was awarded the 2003 College Press Freedom Award by the StudentPress Law Center and the Associated Collegiate Press for its battle to keeppublic records open despite intense opposition in the Earnhardt case.