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Florida's Attempt to Block Release of Autopsy Photos Must be Stopped, Says SPJ


Contacts: Ray Marcano, SPJ president, 937/225-2323 or rmarcano@spj.org; Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman, 406/542-4400 or ian@kpax.com, Bob Lystad, SPJ First Amendment legal counsel, 202/861-1500

INDIANAPOLIS — A circuit court should prevent enforcement of Florida’s short-sighted attempt to block public access of all autopsy photographs, says the Society of Professional Journalists.

The Orlando Sentinel and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel filed a lawsuit late Friday asking the Broward Circuit Court to declare unconstitutional and prevent enforcement of a state law passed March 29. The law, which took effect March 29 immediately after Gov. Jeb Bush signed it, prevents the public and media from seeing anyone’s autopsy photographs unless they convince a judge that there is good cause to view them.

SPJ, the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization, strongly supports the newspapers’ position in this open records battle.

"This is clearly a bad law spurred by shameless pandering on the part of the Florida Legislature," said Ray Marcano, SPJ president and assistant managing editor for production at the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News. "By filing this lawsuit, the Sentinel has done what Florida lawmakers won’t do — fight for the public’s right to know."

The push for the recently passed Florida law 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 had 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.

SPJ has been at the forefront of media organizations across the country offering 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.

"This isn’t just about Dale Earnhardt, and it isn’t about the publishing of autopsy photos, despite the hysteria to the contrary. This is about any instance in which a government employee conducts an autopsy with questionable results," said Ian Marquand, SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee chairman and special projects coordinator for KPAX-TV in Montana. "Forcing journalists to beg a judge for access in such emotionally charged circumstances is the wrong approach. I believe there will come a day when Florida regrets this hasty decision."

A story on the newspapers’ lawsuit is available here.

For the complete text of the Florida law, go to the state legislature's Web site and type "1356" in the bill search field.


For more information, read Earnhardt autopsy photos are public record, a column about the Erby Kenneth A. Paulson, senior vice president of The Freedom Forum and executive director of the First Amendment Center.

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