Contacts: Ray Marcano, SPJ president, 937/225-2323 or email@example.com; Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman, 406/542-4400 or firstname.lastname@example.org
INDIANAPOLIS — Florida’s new law blocking access to autopsy photos is short-sighted and diminishes the value of public access laws, says the Society of Professional Journalists.
Bill CS-SB 1356 passed 40-0 today in the Florida Senate and now goes to Gov. Jeb Bush, who is expected to sign the measure into a law later today. The law, which will take effect immediately, prevents the public and media from seeing anyone’s autopsy photographs unless they convince a judge that there is good cause to view them.
"This is a sad day for Florida residents," said Ray Marcano, SPJ president and assistant managing editor for production at the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News. "Lawmakers have told their citizens that when they demand public information, the Legislature will take steps to keep it secret. Florida has taken a giant leap backward by weakening what had been the nation’s best open records law. And citizens now live in a state where they have the right not to know."
The bill originated after autopsy photographs of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt became the center of a heated open records battle. The controversy began when the Orlando Sentinel requested that a medical expert be allowed to examine the Earnhardt autopsy photos after he died Feb. 18 in a crash at Daytona International Speedway. The newspaper is investigating the cause of
Earnhardt’s death to determine if his life could have been saved by further safety measures that are now used by other racing leagues.
Earnhardt’s family, however, 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 a 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 medical examiner reviewed the autopsy photos March 26.
Until today’s vote to pass the Florida Senate bill restricting access to the autopsy photos, the state’s Sunshine Laws clearly indicated that autopsy photographs were public record.
"There are times when the ‘all for one’ philosophy is appropriate, when great energies are summoned to protect one individual or family. I’m not sure this was one of them," said Ian Marquand, chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee and special projects coordinator for KPAX-TV in Montana. "It’s pretty obvious who has clout in the Florida Legislature, and it isn’t the public’s watchdog. Fast cars and fame apparently trump freedom of information and public access."
SPJ is one of many media organizations across the country that has offered its support for the rights of the public and members of the media to view autopsy pictures. Marcano, SPJ president, gave interviews to several national media outlets on SPJ’s support of the Sentinel’s efforts to gain access to the photos. Those interviews included appearances in MSNBC and Fox News.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the First Amendment Foundation, the Associated Press Sports Editors, the Miami Herald, the Tampa Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and Tampa’s WFLA TV also were among the Sentinel’s many supporters in its battle to view the Earnhardt photographs.
Other news organizations now are battling to gain access to the Earnhardt photographs. The president of an online news organization, Websitecity.com, and an independent student newspaper at the University of Florida — the Independent Florida Alligator — have appealed the sealing of the Earnhardt photographs. Hearings for both organizations’ cases are scheduled for April 5.