Supreme Court declines to hear appeal in Earnhardt autopsy photo case

Court's decision will likely end almost three-year-long battle for access

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The U.S. Supreme Court today declined to hear an appeal by the University of Florida student newspaper to reconsider a lower court's ruling that kept records of racecar driver Dale Earnhardt's autopsy private.The Supreme Court's decision will likely end an almost three-year battle between the student newspaper and the Earnhardt family and state Legislature. The Independent Florida Alligator asked the high court in September to hear its case, which challenged a Florida law passed after Earnhardt's death that barred public access to autopsy photographs.The Supreme Court did not give a reason for declining to hear the case. In the newspaper's petition to the Supreme Court, lawyers argued that the Florida law violates the First Amendment and is unnecessarily broad.One month after Earnhardt's fatal crash at the Daytona 500 in February 2001, Gov. Jeb Bush approved the Earnhardt Family Protection Act. The law, implemented at the behest of Earnhardt's wife, Teresa Earnhardt, restricts access to all videos, photos and audio recordings taken during autopsies unless a court rules the requester's intentions trump the family's right to privacy.Autopsy records were previously accessible under Florida's Public Records Act.In September, Patricia Walker, one of the newspaper's lawyers, said the law violates the First Amendment because it allows courts to grant or deny access to public records based on a speaker's viewpoint. The Independent Florida Alligator did not tell the court why they wanted the photos because it did not want the court to make a value judgment on its intentions, Walker said. Lawyers for the newspaper could not immediately be reached for comment. A Florida appeals court ruled in July 2002 that the Earnhardt act was not too broad and that the Earnhardt family's right to privacy outweighed the public's right to know, although the court did not consider the newspaper's First Amendment arguments. The Florida Supreme Court declined to hear the case in July, prompting the newspaper's appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in September. The Independent Florida Alligator was awarded the 2003 College Press Freedom Award by the Student Press Law Center and the Associated Collegiate Press for its battle to keep public records open despite intense opposition in the Earnhardt case.

Campus Communications v. Earnhardt, 03-484
Read previous coverage