California senator puts focus on paparazzi

Monday, February 16, 1998

Legislation aimed at aggressive photographers who relentlessly pursue celebrities and sometimes jeopardize their safety in the process is slated for introduction this month.

The Personal Privacy Protection Act, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is expected to be the focus of the lawmaker’s news conference tomorrow.

The bill expressly states that publication of even illegally obtained material is not against the law. It addresses, however, the action a photographer takes to get a picture.

Paparazzi engaging in activities such as “persistent chasing or following,” the bill states, would face federal criminal charges punishable by up to a year in prison, at least five years if bodily harm results and at least 20 years if a death occurs.

Not only is the bill “unnecessary and redundant,” said Los Angeles-based attorney Douglas E. Mirell. “But, more importantly, it’s dangerous in a number of ways including, particularly, the apparent attempt to create liability for trespassing which has never been so defined before.”

Under the bill, photographers using zoom lenses and other enhancement devices, without actually stepping on private property, would be considered trespassers if the pictures could not otherwise have been taken without physically trespassing.

Mirell, a First Amendment attorney, told the First Amendment Center: “If a photographer is using a long lens on public property, for example, you’re trespassing. That’s bizarre and unprecedented.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, Feinstein involved three law professors in drafting the legislation. The article cites University of Southern California’s Erwin Chemerinsky, Harvard’s Larry Lessig and University of Chicago’s Cass Sunstein.

“I expect that at least Professor Chemerinksy probably exerted the maximum effort possible to try to make this legislation as palatable from a First Amendment perspective as he possibly could, but I’m very skeptical that [those responsible for drafting the bill] have succeeded in this effort,” Mirell said.

“It raises very, very troubling constitutional questions and there are a whole raft of vagueness and ambiguity problems; the magnitude of which I can’t assess at this time.”

Chemerinsky, however, is confident that the legislation will pass constitutional challenges.

“Any attempt to regulate those who engage in newsgathering should raise First Amendment concerns, but this bill is extremely narrow,” he told the FAC. “It doesn’t do all that much. It just creates liability for the paparazzi’s illegal behavior.

“The First Amendment concerns were present in the beginning of the discussions but the group [who worked to draft the bill] was very cognizant the whole while of the First Amendment.”

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