Idaho authorities bust ‘reality’ actor for disturbing the peace

Thursday, January 7, 1999

Jeff Norman won no popularity prizes when he moved into an affluent neighborhood in Boise, Idaho, last fall.

Within four days of moving into his new house, Norman mud-wrestled a woman in his front yard, exercised in the middle of the street and decorated the outside of his home with dozens of flamingos, animal statues and tiki torches. He also used a bullhorn to invite his neighbors to a housewarming party.

But it was a hoax, a segment for a Fox television special called “World's Nastiest Neighbors.”

Soon after Norman and his production crew revealed they were filming a television show, the neighbors sprung their own surprise. They called the sheriff, and Norman found himself handcuffed in a patrol car and under arrest for disturbing the peace.

On Feb. 3, Norman goes to trial on charges of violating the state's noise statute. If found guilty, he faces up to six months in jail and a $300 fine.

But Norman contends that the Idaho statute barring “loud or unusual noise” is overly broad and vague, and, thus, unconstitutional.

“I realize my exploits preclude many people from sympathizing with me on a personal level, but it is always important to take a stand against arbitrary police power,” Norman said. “And while I have no objection to specific and constitutionally valid regulations designed to protect people from unwanted intrusions, cops are not supposed to just make up the law as they go along.”

When Norman moved into the affluent Boise neighborhood last September, he posed as a winner in the Connecticut lottery. Meanwhile, a film crew used hidden and long-range cameras to videotape the neighbors' reactions to Norman's eccentric behavior.

The Ada County Sheriff's Department did not return calls from the First Amendment Center.

In recent years, reality-based television shows have meant huge ratings, particularly for Fox. But the genre has generated an enormous amount of criticism for its graphic and frank depictions of real-life events, often captured using hidden cameras.

Some such shows have faced legal action, most notably in California where two women sued a production company for allegedly violating their right to privacy after a car accident. In that case, Shulman v. Group W, one woman claimed that her conversations with a nurse were taped without her consent and broadcast on a Los Angeles television show called On Scene: Emergency Response.

The California Supreme Court last June allowed the case to go forward. The court said reporters who use hidden cameras and other secret methods to intrude on private places and conversations can be sued for invasion of privacy.

Executives at Fox declined to return calls to the First Amendment Center. Executives at ZMC, the Los Angeles company producing “World's Nastiest Neighbors,” could not be reached for comment.

Norman, who has appeared in sitcoms such as “Seinfeld” and a variety of reality-based programs, said that he believes the First Amendment to be almost absolute, and that the government cannot regulate such programs or speech.

“It's legitimate for government to regulate speech if it's in the interest of protecting people against unwanted intrusion,” he said. “But it's got to be specific.”

Norman noted that the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1948 case of Saia v. New York ruled in favor of a minister who had been arrested for preaching through a loudspeaker in a Lockport, N.Y., park without a permit. The court deemed that the law wasn't narrowly drawn to regulate the use of loudspeakers or the volume to which they must be adjusted.

Norman said the Idaho law doesn't offer specifics about the noise type or volume. He also questioned whether his amplified invitation to his neighbors should be deemed “loud or unusual,” since he used the bullhorn in the middle of the afternoon.

As for “World's Nastiest Neighbors,” Norman said he considers reality-based shows to be legitimate television.

“We miscalculated a bit” in Idaho, Norman said. “But that doesn't mean we should throw it out altogether.”