Florida student newspaper receives College Press Freedom Award

Legal fight for controversial public records sparked death threats

For Immediate ReleaseARLINGTON, Va. -- A Florida college student newspaper that has battled to keep public records open despite intense opposition has been named the recipient of the 2003 College Press Freedom Award.The award to The Independent Florida Alligator, a student newspaper at the University of Florida, was presented at the Associated Collegiate Press/College Media Advisers national convention in Dallas on Saturday, Nov. 8.The award, sponsored by the Student Press Law Center and the Associated Collegiate Press, is given each year to a college student journalist or student news organization that has demonstrated outstanding support for the free press rights of students.For the last two years, The Independent has fought to prevent Florida courts from permanently sealing the autopsy photos of race car driver Dale Earnhardt and from enforcing a law, passed two months after his death, that allows Florida state officials and judges to determine the editorial appropriateness of a freedom of information request before making government documents available.The newspaper contends that the law sets a dangerous precedent and violates the First Amendment because it allows courts to grant or deny access to public records based on a speaker's viewpoint.In September, The Independent Florida Alligator appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in a final effort to preserve public access to the photos. It is appealing a Florida state court's ruling that denied the newspaper's request.Earnhardt, a seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion, was killed Feb. 18, 2001, when his car hit the wall on the final turn at the Daytona 500. Following the crash, there was considerable speculation about how Earnhardt had died. At the time, many argued that having an expert review the photos could help determine whether better safety equipment, which was not required by NASCAR, could have saved the driver's life.The newspaper's legal challenge has been vehemently denounced, especially by NASCAR fans who have bombarded the newspaper and its attorneys with angry e-mails and telephone calls. While The Independent has always maintained that it has no interest in publishing or even possessing copies of the autopsy photos, rumors about how the photos would be used by the media sparked considerable outrage.The newspaper's building has been vandalized, newsracks destroyed and newspapers set on fire. Staff members have received multiple death threats, including one, directed to the newspaper's managing editor, that threatened to ''kill you and your whole staff and put your autopsy photos on the Internet.''But for over two years, the student newspaper has persevered in its efforts, something that has impressed many. "While it may not be popular, the fact is that autopsy photos have historically played a critical role in press reports about murders, medical malpractice, prison deaths and other public controversies," said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center."That The Independent Florida Alligator was willing to stand up -- alone -- in the face of intense public criticism and physical threats for a principle it believed in should serve as an inspiration to all journalists," said Goodman. "Anyone can fight for what is popular. True courage is demonstrated when you dare to stand for what is not."###Founded in 1921, the National Scholastic Press Association and it's college division, the Associated Collegiate Press, provide rating services and critical analyses for print and electronic student news media and sponsor the largest annual national conventions for student journalists and their advisers.Since its founding in 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been the only national organization exclusively devoted to providing free legal advice and assistance to student journalists and advisers and serving as an advocate for their free press and freedom of information rights.For additional information contact:Mark Goodman, Executive Director, Student Press Law Center(703) 807-1904

Read previous coverage