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Monday, November 19
Advocates back student newspaper
Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Five journalism advocacy organizations are asking a state appeals court to declare unconstitutional a law limiting access to autopsy photos.

The Florida Legislature passed the law in March, weeks after the death of NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt in a last-lap crash in the season-opening Daytona 500.

The groups' brief, filed with the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach on Monday, supports the University of Florida student newspaper's attempt at having the law struck down.

Represented in the brief are the Society for Professional Journalists, the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, the First Amendment Foundation, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Student Press Law Center.

The Florida law prohibits all autopsy photos from being made public unless a judge has ruled they can be unsealed. Breaking the law would be a third-degree felony with a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

"Florida used to have the strongest public-records law in the country," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director for the Virginia-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "Lately, your legislators seem to be chipping away at that whenever they get the opportunity."

The Independent Florida Alligator tried to have the law declared unconstitutional. But in June, Circuit Judge Joseph Will upheld the law's constitutionality and, two days later, denied the newspaper access to Earnhardt's autopsy photos.

The Alligator appealed a month later, arguing that the Legislature violated due process by creating a retroactive exemption to the state's open records law for autopsy photos.

In addition, the newspaper argued the exemption is too broad and that Will erred by granting a temporary injunction prohibiting the autopsy photos from being made public.

Also, the Orlando Sentinel and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel filed a separate motion in August asking a court to throw out the law on constitutional grounds.

It was the Orlando Sentinel's desire to see Earnhardt's photos, made days after his death on Feb. 18, that prompted the law and the ensuing controversies and legal actions.

The newspaper sought access to his autopsy photos as part of its ongoing investigation of NASCAR's safety measures. But the request was met with a huge public outcry, and the Legislature acted quickly to bar access to the photos.

But before the bill passed, the Sentinel and Earnhardt's family reached an agreement allowing an independent expert to study the photos and write a report on Earnhardt's cause of death.

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