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Papers Sue Over Autopsy Photo Law

March 31, 2001

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Two Florida newspapers sued officials in Broward County Friday, claiming a 24-hour-old state law that bans release of autopsy photos violates first amendment guarantees and state law.

The law grew out of pressure brought by the widow of NASCAR racing great Dale Earnhardt, who died Feb. 18 in a final-lap crash at the Daytona 500.

Teresa Earnhardt, in seeking to block release of the photos taken of her husband, became embroiled in court battle with the Orlando Sentinel which wanted to have them examined by an independent expert to determine what killed Earnhardt.

The dispute led the state legislature to hurriedly pass a measure blocking release of autopsy photos unless ordered by a judge. Gov. Jeb Bush signed the bill into law Thursday with Teresa Earnhardt looking on.

Friday’s suit by the Sentinel and the Sun-Sentinel of South Florida names Joshua A. Perper, chief medical examiner for the county, and Michael J. Satz, state attorney in Broward County.

``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.

``It’s no surprise,″ said Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee. ``The sponsors of this legislation knew it would be challenged. The bill is clearly unconstitutional.″

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.″

The law makes unauthorized release of autopsy photos a third-degree felony punishable by up to 5 years in jail and a $5,000 fine.

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