Earnhardt Photo Request Denied
December 1, 2003 | 2:41 P.M. EST
Without comment, the high court refused to hear the appeal by the publisher of The Independent Florida Alligator, a student-run newspaper at the University of Florida, that challenged the constitutionality of a state law restricting access to autopsy photographs.
Earnhardt died in a crash on the final lap of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 18, 2001. The medical examiner conducted an autopsy and, under Florida law, the 33 photographs were supposed to be made public.
But Earnhardt's wife went to court to stop release of the photographs on the grounds it would violate her constitutional right to privacy. A judge granted a injunction barring release of the photographs.
In March 2001, the Florida Legislature amended the state's public records law, creating an exemption for autopsy photographs and applying it retroactively.
A Florida appeals court upheld the law. It said the photographs, which have been described as gruesome, did not reveal anything that was not contained in the autopsy report and other materials that have been made public.
The newspaper argued in its appeal to the Supreme Court that the law was unconstitutionally broad and violated the First Amendment.
"The Florida Legislature's decision to remove autopsy photographs from public view is directly analogous to a governmental decision to remove thousands of books from public library shelves because the government believes that the contents ... are no longer suitable for the public," it said.
Attorneys for the state defended the law as constitutional. Lawyers for Earnhardt's family urged the high court to reject the appeal and said there are limits on public access to sensitive personal information.