Keeping records open serves best interests of Ohio citizens
Highly emotional cases make bad law.
And in Florida in February and March of 2001, emotions were running sky high over the death of NASCAR racing legend Dale Earnhardt and an attempt by the Orlando Sentinel to gain access to photos of the Earnhardt autopsy.
To millions of people, Earnhardt was a colorful, no-nonsense race-car driver whose name and car were recognized by even the most casual observer of the sport.
But in Florida, the Earnhardt name was the stuff of legends. He had made his name at the state's most famous track, the Daytona Speedway, and he died at that track, crashing on the last lap of the Daytona 500, Feb. 18, 2001.
The reaction to the Sentinel's attempt to view the autopsy photos as part of a story the newspaper was working on regarding safety on the NASCAR track was angry and swift.
The paper was flooded with e-mails condemning it. The Earnhardt family condemned the newspaper for attempting to invade its privacy, and the Florida legislature leaped to action, passing a law that exempted autopsy photos from the state's public records law.
Easy call for politicians
In this case, the legislature was not only confident that it was currying favor with the state's racing fans and showing itself to be sensitive to a grieving widow, it was currying favor with NASCAR, which has a history of running a notoriously closed shop. The last thing NASCAR wanted was a bunch of nosy reporters looking into whether drivers were dying in crashes resulting in any part from something NASCAR did or didn't do.
The legislature attacked the issue with such gusto, that the Daytona Beach News Journal reported in early April 2001 that the lone bill signed into law halfway through the state legislative session was the Earnhardt Family Protection Act. (Yes, that was the name of the bill.)
Lost in all the hubbub was the fact that the Orlando Sentinel made it clear that it was not its intention to publish the photos, it wanted only to do a thorough job of reporting on the dangers of one of the biggest sports in the country by having an independent expert study them.
So why bring all this up now? Well, we didn't. The Ohio State Coroners Association did by launching a drive to seek its own Earnhardt bill, which would declare suicide notes and autopsy photographs to be private documents that are not subject to Ohio's open-records law.
This is an example of the worst kind of legislative piggybacking imaginable. Because the state of Florida passed a law in the heat of the moment, these coroners see an opportunity to push a similar bill through the Ohio General Assembly.
Arguing to keep autopsy records open may seem ghoulish on the part of a newspaper. It isn't. It is nothing more or less than an argument for maintaining open government in the state of Ohio.
Exceptions make the rules
The press plays an important role as a watchdog, and it is not difficult to imagine instances in which a thorough examination of autopsy records would be necessary by a newspaper or a public interest group.
As to suicide notes, the reality is that reporters rarely if ever seek access to suicide notes. But we can think of instances when they not only would, they should. What if the person committing suicide had been a principal in a multi-million (or billion) dollar scandal? A politician involved in a corruption probe? A person under investigation for a serious crime? In any of those instances, the public would be best served by having access to the information.
Coroners aren't much different from anyone else. They don't like people, especially the press, looking over their shoulders. And so the easiest thing for them to do is seek the protection of the legislature. And in this case they have seized on the Earnhardt Act as the easiest way to accomplish their end.
The Ohio General Assembly shouldn't allow itself to be taken in. In should stand firmly in favor of continuing open government, even when openness feels a bit uncomfortable. Perhaps especially then.