Traffic laws best way to curb reckless paparazzi

Monday, August 27, 2012

Fame doesn’t always inspire the best legislation.

In striving to carve out protection for celebrities, lawmakers can sometimes overlook the impact on those who don’t get cameras pointed their way.

Case in point is a California law that prohibits reckless driving in the pursuit of “commercial” photos. Paul Raef was charged under the law in July after he allegedly pursued Justin Bieber at speeds greater than 80 mph, creating hazardous traffic conditions for nearby drivers. The paparazzo contends that the 2010 law is unconstitutional, according to the Associated Press.

The law is problematic, in large part because the problem it purports to address — high speed and reckless driving in pursuit of a car — can be addressed by existing traffic laws. You can’t legally drive 80 mph in a 60 mph zone regardless of the motives for your speeding.

Raef also contends the law is unconstitutional because it targets the press. Newsgathering, including photography, is protected under the First Amendment. It doesn’t matter that the photo being taken is of a pop star and not a public official. News is broadly defined and government can’t target the gathering of information without running into constitutional barriers.

By singling out “commercial” photographers, the drafters of the law apparently intended to target paparazzi instead of representatives of news organizations or even fans. But as Raef argues in his motion, it’s difficult to know what constitutes a photo taken for commercial purposes. After all, the Los Angeles Times is both a commercial and journalistic enterprise.

There’s no sympathy for paparazzi among the mainstream press or the public, but this law essentially turns already illegal conduct into a separate offense when committed by photographers pursuing prominent people.

There’s no question that in their zeal to shoot celebrities, paparazzi can sometimes place others at risk, but the key is to punish reckless conduct independent of the photographer’s employer, motive or medium.

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