Contacts: Christine Tatum, SPJ Legal Defense Fund chairwoman, at 312/658-3874 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman, 406/542-4400 or email@example.com; Ray Marcano, SPJ president, 937/225-2323 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
INDIANAPOLIS - The Society of Professional Journalists is strengthening its support for media groups trying to overturn Florida's new law that restricts access to autopsy records, including those of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt.
SPJ awarded the Independent Florida Alligator student newspaper a $1,000 Legal Defense Fund grant to aid its attempts to overturn a new Florida law - passed March 29 in response to Earnhardt's death - that limits public access to autopsy photographs unless a judge is convinced that there is good cause to view them. The Alligator serves the University of Florida community but is not supported financially by the institution.
"Students at the University of Florida are asking the right questions, and the Society of Professional Journalists is determined to stand behind them," said Christine Tatum, chairwoman of the Society's Legal Defense Fund. "At its very core, this case has nothing to do with Dale Earnhardt; it is about the public's right to inspect the results of autopsies conducted by government employees."
On April 5, the Independent Florida Alligator intervened in a lawsuit filed by Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, against the Volusia County medical examiner to prevent public viewing of the deceased driver's autopsy photos. The Alligator also is challenging the constitutionality of the new law restricting access to all autopsy photos.
"I'm impressed with the courage and commitment of the students at the University of Florida and the Independent Florida Alligator," said Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman and special projects coordinator for KPAX TV in Montana. "After all, this issue goes beyond one news organization or one controversial death. It's about standing up for the public's right to have access to public records. And it's about challenging the notion that public policy can be driven by celebrities, their fans and self-serving corporate interests."
The Orlando Sentinel and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel also have filed a lawsuit against the new law, asking a circuit court to declare it unconstitutional and prevent its enforcement. SPJ has offered strong support to this legal battle as well and plans to file a friend-of-the-court legal brief on behalf of the professional newspapers.
Florida lawmakers began pushing for the new law after Earnhardt's autopsy photographs became the center of a heated open records battle. The controversy began when the Orlando Sentinel requested that an independent medical expert be allowed to examine the Earnhardt autopsy photos after he died Feb. 18 in a crash at Daytona International Speedway.
The Sentinel has been investigating Earnhardt's death to determine if he died from the same injury as three other NASCAR drivers, who recently were killed when their heads violently whipped forward in the seconds after their cars crashed. This fatal injury often can be prevented with further safety measures that are now used by other racing leagues.
Earnhardt's family asked a judge to keep the medical examiner's records confidential, and the Florida court system supported that request. After private mediation, the family allowed an independent medical examiner to review the photographs for the Sentinel, but no other media or members of the public were granted access to the photographs. The Sentinel had published stories on NASCAR safety concerns before the Earnhardt crash.
The independent medical examiner reviewed the autopsy photos March 26 and announced April 9 that Earnhardt died because his head whipped violently forward, not from seat-belt failure, as the Daytona International Speedway reported.
Since 1926, SPJ, with almost 10,000 members nationwide, has encouraged journalists - through its Code of Ethics - to fight for access to information and practice responsible journalism by seeking the truth and reporting it, minimizing harm, acting independently and being accountable. Since the access battle over the Earnhardt autopsy photographs began, SPJ has been at the forefront of media organizations nationwide supporting the rights of the public and the media to view the pictures in order to investigate the cause of the NASCAR driver's death.
"Speaking for the entire staff of the Alligator, I am very honored to know the Society of Professional Journalists has decided to contribute to our fight for First Amendment rights," said Jason Brown, editor of the Independent Florida Alligator. "It's great to know there are other journalists out there who understand the importance of this fight and are willing to help out as much as possible."
The Society's Legal Defense Fund offers financial assistance to journalists in cases such as the Florida Alligator's. To apply for an LDF grant in such situations, contact Christine Tatum at 312/658-3874 or email@example.com.
For more on the independent medical examiner's findings on Earnhardt's death
For the complete text of the Florida law, follow this link and type "1356" in the bill search field.
For a Freedom Forum column on this access issue