A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists


By Quill

Appeal for Earnhardt photos thrown out

After a student-run newspaper challenged the constitutionality of a 2001 Florida autopsy law, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an appeal on Dec. 1 from the newspaper, which wanted autopsy photos of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt.

The Florida law, passed after Earnhardt was killed in an accident at the Daytona 500 in February 2001, barred the Independent Florida Alligator (University of Florida) and public access to autopsy photos, The Associated Press reported.

Before Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed the law at the request of Teresa Earnhardt, the driver’s widow, Florida had allowed the public to see autopsy photographs for 90 years without any problems, attorney Thomas Julin, commenting on the newspaper’s behalf, wrote to justices. The newspaper had lost previous rulings in several Florida courts, including the state Supreme Court.

The Alligator, staffed by Florida students, sought the photos when questions surfaced about how Earnhardt died and whether better safety equipment might have saved him from fatal head injuries. Lawyers for Teresa Earnhardt argued that the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling did not involve federal constitutional issues, eliminating it from a potential U.S. Supreme Court review.

FBI sticks with 100-year disclosure rule

The release of 50-year-old law enforcement records could still intrude upon the privacy of those named in them, and they can be withheld under an exemption to the federal Freedom of Information Act, a U.S. appeals panel in Washington, D.C., ruled Nov. 17.

The request was made by McCarthyism expert Ellen Schrecker, who hoped the three-judge panel would rule that the FBI needs to take greater steps in determining whether people mentioned in records were alive. Death diminishes the need to protect privacy, according to U.S. law.

Schrecker, who teaches at Yeshiva University in New York, had argued against the FBI’s use of a “100-year rule,” which allows the agency to presume individuals are dead only if the sought-after record contains birth dates 100 or more years old, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The FBI has claimed – with regular court approval – that associating a name with a law enforcement record is so stigmatizing that if the government discloses the association, it has intruded on personal privacy.

Victims’ info cut from police logs

Information that identifies sex crime victims in police incident reports were deemed not public under Kentucky’s Open Records Act, the state Court of Appeals ruled in early November. The names, addresses and other potential identifying information should be eliminated before disclosing such reports to the public.

A lawsuit initiated by The (Louisville) Courier Journal, which was denied access to unredacted police reports by the Louisville Police Department, was thrown out with the ruling. The newspaper had been allowed access to original, untouched reports, but the city changed its policy in August 2002 after a complaint by area nonprofit group the Center for Women and Families, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reported.

Courier-Journal executive editor Bennie Ivory said in a February 2003 story that the newspaper’s interest in observing the original records was not to print the identities of sex crime victims, but to use the information to allow reporters to spot trends, such as if particular neighborhoods have been susceptible to numerous crimes.

Army tightens media rules at funerals

The U.S. Army tightened existing rules on media coverage of funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, ordering that reporters be kept far enough away from the graveside that they would likely be unable to hear a chaplain’s eulogy.

As of Nov. 13, reporters have been kept in a roped-in “bullpen” that is generally far enough away that words spoken at gravesides cannot be heard, officials told the Washington Post. Arlington superintendent Jack Metzler Jr. said the cemetery would be following rules already in the books, but ones that have not been strictly regulated in the past. The order, which came from Army officials at the Pentagon, came in response to an alleged complaint, which Metzler declined to detail.

Also last fall, U.S. officials had restricted photographers from taking pictures at military bases of flown-in coffins of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

KY governor demands written questions

Kentucky Gov.-elect Ernie Fletcher refused in November to answer any questions from The (Louisville) Courier-Journal unless the newspaper submitted them in writing.

Fletcher’s spokesman, Wes Irvin, advised a reporter of the policy Nov. 18 after the newspaper had published a story reporting that some members of Fletcher’s transition team had conflicts or other business with agencies Fletcher had assigned them to research, the Courier-Journal reported. Irvin, who also expressed unhappiness with the newspaper’s coverage of Fletcher’s campaign, declined to comment Nov. 20 and faxed the following statement to the newspaper: “This policy is not in place with any other media outlet in the entire state of Kentucky except The Courier-Journal. … Only The Courier-Journal has been asked to put everything in writing.”

The policy was created two weeks after Fletcher was elected as Kentucky’s first Republican governor in 32 years. After a news conference in Lexington on Nov. 20, Fletcher twice refused to answer questions from a Courier-Journal reporter about his transition team, telling the reporter to submit written questions.