Celebrities, press advocates to square off at paparazzi hearing

Wednesday, May 20, 1998

Two television celebrities, a murder victim’s mother and several press advocates are among those scheduled to testify before a House committee Thursday about the privacy rights of public figures who regularly face media attention.

Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., said society’s “increasingly voracious appetite” for news and pictures of famous people has created a new press corps called the paparazzi. Hyde, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said that because paparazzi often stalk the subjects of their photos, they often tread on privacy rights.

The Judiciary Committee plans to hear testimony Thursday morning on two bills: H.R. 3224, known as the “Privacy Protection Act of 1998,” and H.R. 2448, “Protection from Personal Intrusion Act.”

Television stars Michael J. Fox of “Spin City” and Paul Reiser of “Mad About You,” and Ellen Levin, whose daughter was killed in the 1986 “Preppie Murder,” are among those supporting the legislation. Other panelists include journalists, scholars and others in the entertainment industry who support or oppose the legislation.

Hyde, in announcing the hearing, said he worries that there is no clear line between aggressive reporting by the mainstream media and the actions of the paparazzi.

“Gathering information, including taking photographs, is First Amendment activity and as such is protected under the Constitution,” he said. “Yet, at times, some reporters and photographers cross the line and engage in conduct that is harmful, and that is not protected by the First Amendment.”

“Our bill is more narrowly focused than other proposals and is designed to protect First Amendment speech rights,” said Joel Kassidy, spokesman for Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., sponsor of H.R. 3224. “It does not limit speech—only actions that result in injury or death.”

Kassidy said the bill only applies to photographs or recordings that were intended for commercial purposes. The bill, too, requires the victim to show “that he or she had a reasonable expectation of privacy at the time the harassment occurred.”

Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., is the sponsor of H.R. 2448, a bill her husband, Sonny, introduced before he was killed earlier this year in a skiing accident.

Press advocates criticize the bills saying they would hamper regular reporting efforts. They say such measures give the subjects of news reports significant power to limit reporting about them simply because they don’t like it.

“The vague language of the proposed bill could impact legitimate news gathering and raises major First Amendment concerns,” said Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association.

Cochran, who is scheduled to testify, questioned the need for the bill since laws exist already that punish reporters and photographers who endanger the lives of their subjects.

“The bill is redundant with laws already on the books at the state level that provide sanctions for endangerment and have been successfully used to provide protection,” she said.