The world is still in the process of mourning the death of a beloved American icon, Robin L. Williams. He was more than just a comedian, he was a force to be reckoned with. We laughed along with him in films like “Mrs. Doubtfire,” in which a single dad tried anything he could to connect with his children; we all wanted to stand up on our desks and cry out “O Captain, my Captain!” at the end of “Dead Poet’s Society.” Robin Williams has been a part of many people’s lives for a number of years and his loss will be felt for a long time in the future. However, there has been an uproar lately concerning the release of the specific details of his death, some say that this was not necessary; others say it’s a matter of law.
Various media outlets (like the LA Times and BBC5) have been heavily criticized for having presented, not just the basic information concerning the star’s demise, but the gory details of what the police found when they entered Williams’s home in the unincorporated community of Tiburon. The Marin County Sheriff’s Department claims that officials must release the graphic details of any person’s death as they are a matter of public record, even when family members request privacy and time to grieve (as Williams’s family has done).
While others have addressed this problem as one of media ethics and responsibility, it should also be looked at as a question of the responsibility and ethics of state institutions like the Sheriff’s Department. What is in question is whether or not the intimate details should have been reported to the public during a news conference. However, because the coroner’s office is, in fact, an office that deals in public records, any details such as the ones released in William’s death can be released. However, should they? Should information that is in the public record be repeated by media outlets all over the country and the world because of a graphic and gruesome press conference from a seemingly unfeeling set of officials?
California law seems to state that a coroner’s report, the kind of report in question here, is available to any member of the public through the right channels. It is not a private document and cannot be concealed in any way by law enforcement or other officials. The only thing that can be kept confidential is any communication from the deceased that has been obtained via a subpoena (California Governmental Code 27491.8). However, it has also become increasingly popular for individual family members of the deceased to invoke the privacy clause in the California Constitution Article I – Declaration of Rights, as a reason for keeping certain information private. Perhaps Williams’s family would have had the opportunity to do this, if the Sheriff’s Department had not already released the details of where the actor and comedian was found, what he was wearing, and exactly how he chose to end his own life. Certainly, many members of the public would argue that this action was irresponsible and a bit, well, tacky.