Alligator crawls into autopsy photo swamp

Student newspaper sues to prevent Dale Earnhardt's records from being sealed

FLORIDA -- The University of Florida student newspaper stepped into the legal arena built around legendary NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt's autopsy photos in March to challenge a settlement made between Earnhardt's widow and the Orlando Sentinel.

That settlement allowed the Sentinel to have an independent medical examiner evaluate photographs from Earnhardt's autopsy, after which the photos were to be sealed. But the Independent Florida Alligator filed a motion to set aside that agreement so it could gain access to the photos, and a judge agreed April 5 that the student newspaper could intervene in the case.

The Alligator also filed suit challenging the constitutionality of a law signed by Gov. Jeb Bush on March 29 exempting autopsy photos from Florida's public-records law, arguing the law violates both the U.S. Constitution and the state constitution. The law was introduced in response to Teresa Earnhardt's request for legislation that would prevent the Sentinel from accessing the photos of her dead husband.

Tom Julin, the Alligator's attorney, said he believes the newspaper will face less public pressure than the Sentinel did from subscribers and advertisers.

"The Alligator is not as easily targeted by NASCAR fans and advertisers to try to force it to give up its position. The Sentinel was under very heavy financial pressure to end its suit quickly," he said.

Trey Csar, managing editor of the Alligator, said the paper's staff believes the photos are public records.

"I think we're definitely on the right side of principle," he said.

He also said the paper's main concern is the broader issue of whether the new law is constitutional.

Julin said that under Florida's constitution, exemptions to the public-records law must state specifically what public necessity justifies creating an exemption and must be no broader than necessary.

"I don't think this law meets either of those criteria," Csar said.

Julin said the implications of the law are even broader.

"It potentially is a very important case because what Teresa Earnhardt is claiming in the case is that she has a constitutional right to stop a public official from complying with the public-records law," he said. "She's saying that 'I can come in and stop the medical examiner from complying with the requirements of the statute, and the basis of doing that is not that I have a personal privacy interest in those records myself, but that the disclosure of those records to journalists -- simply making them available for viewing or copying -- upsets me.'"

No dates have been set for subsequent hearings, but Csar said he expects them to begin in May.

Julin said this case illustrates the opportunity student journalists have to shape and defend the law.

"The student press has a very important role to play in the law," he said. "Student journalists frequently can advocate positions that other media are unwilling to advocate or simply are facing too much financial pressure to maintain."

reports, Spring 2001