Cheers to the editors of the Independent Florida Alligator, the University of Florida’s student newspaper.
The Alligator’s investigation into the mysterious fatal crash of legendary NASCAR driver Dale Earnardt has been an uphill battle. Specifically, the Alligator is suing for access to autopsy photos of Earnardt — photos that could potentially shed light on why Earnhardt’s crash proved fatal. Fighting a new Florida law that prohibits access to autopsy photos, the editors of the Alligator have reportedly weathered death threats, vandalism to their office and tampering with their newsstands, presumptively from Earnhardt fans that are not interested in the truth.
The Alligator’s latest set back came earlier this week, when Circuit Judge Joseph Will ruled the autopsy photos should remain sealed from the student journalists and a website, websitecity.com. In his ruling, Will said “the release constitutes a serious invasion of the highest degree. There is no question it’s harmful, it’s unspeakable.”
Will rejected the media’s request for information after hearing emotion-laden (but reason-lacking) pleas from Earnhardt’s family.
“The photographs are humiliating, disgusting and negative,” Teresa Earnhardt told the AP. “That could be nothing but harmful and painful to anyone involved with my family, my company, our fans, anyone.”
So now, rather than having a full public airing, the public must trust a judge and Teresa Earnhardt that the autopsy photos provide no relevant information. Apparently, Teresa’s feelings are more important than the public’s right to know.
Admittedly, the photos probably contain little more than Earnhardt’s bruised body. It is unlikely that much relevant information could be garnered from the pictures. But now, the public may never know for sure.
What’s worse, if higher courts affirm Monday’s ruling, a dangerous precedent could be set. For while Earnhardt’s autopsy may have revealed little, other autopsies can reveal a wealth of evidence, as President Kennedy’s top-secret autopsy did.
Democratic governments should not be deciding what is relevant and what is irrelevant information for public consumption. That job is best left in the hands of journalists and, ultimately, readers.
If the new Florida precedent stands, the press’s ability to hold power brokers accountable will be severely weakened.