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Fla. Limit on Autopsy Photos Upheld

July 04, 2002|From Associated Press

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A judge upheld a state law Wednesday that restricts public access to autopsy photos, turning back challenges from several newspapers and a television station.

The law was passed in March 2001 after the death of race car driver Dale Earnhardt.

"The right to privacy, the right to freedom of press and speech, the right of the people to have access to public records and the right to be left alone are important rights to all who live in this county," Circuit Judge Leroy Moe wrote in his order.

"They are not absolute rights, however, and they frequently clash," he wrote. But the Legislature properly balanced those rights in making the law, he said.

Earnhardt was killed in a crash in the final lap of last year's Daytona 500. The Orlando Sentinel sought his autopsy photos so a safety expert could review them to determine whether better equipment could have prevented the racer's death.

His family's outrage prompted the state Legislature to act quickly to bar access to autopsy photos. The law makes it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison for unauthorized people to view or copy autopsy photos without a court order.

The Sentinel and its sister paper in Fort Lauderdale, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, argued that the law is unconstitutional and too broad.

"We're really quite disappointed about the judge's ruling," said Sentinel attorney David Bralow. He said the newspaper will appeal.

Earnhardt attorney Park Thomson said he was pleased with the judge's decision.

"I believe that it never occurred to anybody that autopsy photos were open," he said. "You now have Web sites that specialize in autopsy photos."

The law also was being challenged by the Tampa Tribune, its television affiliate, WFLA-TV, and four newspapers owned by the New York Times Co.: the Gainesville Sun, the Ledger in Lakeland, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Ocala Star-Banner.

The law also was upheld last June by a judge who denied access to the photos to the Independent Florida Alligator, a newspaper that covers the University of Florida. A state appeals court has heard the case but not ruled.

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