Paparazzi Bills Advance in Legislatures, but Celebrity Suits Favor Photographers
The death of Princess Diana in 1997 gave birth to an anti-paparazzi sentiment that continues to grow.
Celebrities testified at hearings on proposed legislation in the House in late May, and a bill was introduced in the Senate around the same time. In California, one paparazzi bill died, but a less restrictive bill is still active. And in the courts, actors Woody Harrelson and Alec Baldwin expressed satisfaction over the small damage awards courts made to photographers who sued them for assault in separate incidents.
HOUSE COMMITTEE HEARS TESTIMONY FROM MEDIA, CELEBRITIES, VICTIMS' RIGHTS ADVOCATES
The U.S. House of Representatives' Judiciary Committee held a hearing in late May on two pending bills that would make it a federal crime under some circumstances to pursue a person for the purpose of taking a picture or making a tape recording.
The committee heard testimony from two panels of witnesses. The first panel consisted of actors Paul Reiser and Michael J. Fox and victims' rights advocate Ellen Levin, the mother of the victim in New York's infamous "preppie murder" case. The panel told stories of problems they had with coverage of their personal lives.
"Tabloids, TV tabloids, and even some members of the socalled 'legitimate' media will go to any lengths and use the latest technology to obtain the pictures or soundbites that will give them advantage over their rivals in an increasingly competitive marketplace," Fox said in his testimony.
"The laws on the books don't seem to take into consideration the incentives or bounties for this abusive conduct," Fox said.
Fox told how, in 1987, a member of the paparazzi took a photograph of Fox and girlfriend Tracy Pollan, now his wife, asking a New York Police Department Officer for directions to their car. According to Fox, the photo was used to illustrate a fictitious story about how they had asked the police for help in dealing with death threats. Fox said he had never received a single death threat before the tabloid ran the article, but soon afterwards, a woman in southern California began sending a series-"approximately 6,200 in all" - of "graphic and terrifying hate letters that threatened death to Tracy, myself, and to our unborn baby.... I firmly believe she would not have acted had the tabloid not provided an irresponsible, fictional precedent."
Reiser told how hospital personnel leaked to the press that his wife was in labor, and "within hours" the hospital began "receiving calls from imposters posing as relatives and concerned friends, trying to unearth juicy tidbits about our infant's condition," and "intruders" were "spotted in the halls . . . trying to steal a picture of [the Reisers'] newborn child."
After their prepared testimony, Reiser and Fox were asked if they had ever filed civil complaints against members of the paparazzi, and both said they had not.
The second panel included representatives from the news media, persons who worked regularly with celebrities and law professors. Members of the panel made statements and answered questions from the committee, primarily about the constitutionality of the proposed legislation and its potential effect on newsgathering.
"Bills like this one also would protect villains, frauds and scoundrels against diligent photojournalists who would bring them and their activities to light," said Paul Tash, executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times, who testified on behalf of the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
In a statement endorsed by several news organizations including The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Paul McMasters, First Amendment Ombudsman for the Freedom Forum, described the proposed legislation as unnecessary, unwise and unconstitutional.
"It is possible for good writers to tell credible stories from a distance, but photographers must be there, must have access to the people and the events that make the news," he said. …