Supreme Court declines to hear Earnhardt autopsy photos case

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court in December declined to hear an appeal by the University of Florida student newspaper to reconsider a lower court’s ruling that kept photographs of racecar driver Dale Earnhardt’s autopsy private.

    The Independent Florida Alligator was seeking to overturn a state law passed after Earnhardt’s death in 2001 that bars public access to certain autopsy records. The Supreme Court did not give a reason for declining to hear the case.

The newspaper’s lawyers argued that the Florida law violates the First Amendment because it is unnecessarily broad.

Tom Julin, one of the newspaper’s lawyers, said he was disappointed with the court’s decision but was hopeful that a similar lawsuit filed by the Orlando Sentinel — currently in the Florida Court of Appeals — would have better luck challenging the state law.  

“We’re rooting from the sidelines,” Julin said. 

At issue was the Earnhardt Family Protection Act, approved by Gov. Jeb Bush one month after Earnhardt’s fatal crash during the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. The law restricts access to all videos, photos and audio recordings taken during autopsies unless a court rules the requester’s intentions for seeking the records trump the family’s right to privacy. Autopsy photos were previously accessible under Florida’s Public Records Act.

John Mills, the Earnhardt family’s lawyer, did not return requests for comment, but previously said the photos were “grotesque” and should not be accessible to prevent harm to the Earnhardt family.

The law violates the First Amendment because it allows courts to grant or deny access to public records based on a speaker’s viewpoint, said Patricia Walker, one of the newspaper’s lawyers.  The Alligator did not tell the court why it wanted the photos because it did not want the court to make a judgment on its intentions, Walker said.  

 A Florida appeals court ruled in July 2002 that the Earnhardt act was not too broad and that the Earnhardt 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 the newspaper’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s decision to not hear the case will likely end the student newspaper’s almost three-year-long battle for access.

In a related case, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a lawsuit in December seeking access to the death scene photos of Vincent Foster, who served as deputy counsel to former President Bill Clinton. The Earnhardt family filed a brief in the Foster case supporting the Foster family’s right to privacy. The case involves the application of a privacy exemption to the federal Freedom of Information Act.