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Friday, March 30
Florida papers sue medical examiner
Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Two newspapers sued the Broward County medical examiner Friday, one day after Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law a measure restricting the release of autopsy photographs.

The case has taken on widespread interest because the push to keep the photos private was made by the widow of NASCAR racing great Dale Earnhardt, who died Feb. 18 in a final-lap crash at the Daytona 500.

Named as defendants in the suit by the Orlando Sentinel and the Sun-Sentinel of South Florida are Joshua A. Perper, chief medical examiner for the county, and Michael J. Satz, state attorney in Broward County.

The Orlando Sentinel had wanted a medical expert to review the photos to see if it could be determined what might have caused the driver's death, but the bid was headed off by Earnhardt's widow, Teresa.

Lawyers for the Sentinel and Earnhardt reached an agreement earlier this month that allows an independent expert to view the autopsy photos of the racing legend before they're permanently sealed.

Sun-Sentinel attorney David Bralow said the lawsuit was filed in Fort Lauderdale because the newspaper is located there and the plaintiffs were looking for a court that wasn't "surrounded by the emotions" of the Earnhardt case.

The suit alleges the law violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as well as the open government provision of the Florida Constitution.

"The law tramples free speech guarantees, the equal protection doctrine, due process and Florida's constitutional right of access to public records," the suit said.

Attorneys for the Earnhardt family said the newspapers were going against the will of their readers and the people of the state.

"The new law clearly balances the media's request for information with an individual's right to privacy," said attorneys Skip Eubanks and Jon Mills. "We are comfortable that it will withstand any constitutional attack."

Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, said the lawsuit did not come as a surprise.

"The sponsors of this legislation knew it would be challenged. The bill is clearly unconstitutional," she said.

Bush signed the bill Thursday, only a few hours after it was passed unanimously in the Senate. It would be a third-degree felony to improperly release the records with a maximum sentence of five years in jail and a $5,000 fine.

"This bill accomplishes the delicate balance between the public's right to know and a family's right to privacy," Bush said at the signing ceremony attended by Mrs. Earnhardt, who had asked lawmakers to go ahead with the legislation that would prevent the Sentinel from receiving the autopsy photos.

With Senate Majority Leader Jim King leading the way, it took just three weeks for the legislation to sail through both chambers and reach the governor's desk.

"Simply put, the Legislature has passed a totally defective law," the suit charged, adding "the bill was rushed through ... without due regard for the important federal and state constitutional issues it raises."

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