Paparazzi bill reaches California Assembly floor

Thursday, July 30, 1998

With star-studded support from the likes of Sharon Stone, Billy Crystal and Tom Cruise, a California Assembly committee approved a bill that would punish photographers and journalists for overzealous coverage of celebrities.

The Assembly's Judiciary Committee voted 11-3 to approve Senate Bill 262, sending it to the Assembly floor for a vote. If the Assembly approves the bill, it returns to the Senate for more debate.

The measure, if passed, would hold photographers and reporters liable if they use technology such as high-powered microphones and telephoto lenses to invade their subjects' privacy.

Press advocates criticize the bill, saying it 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.

They say sufficient laws exist to punish journalists who trespass, stalk or endanger the lives of their subjects. They note that photographer Andrew O'Brien and cameraman Giles Harrison both received jail sentences after forcing Arnold Schwarzenegger and his family off the road last year while trying to get pictures.

But the bill enjoys widespread support from the Directors Guild, the Screen Actors Guild and numerous celebrities. The bill comes at the same time Congress is considering several similar measures.

During a hearing last May before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, both Michael J. Fox, star of such films as Back to the Future, and Paul Reiser, star of the television series Mad About You, testified that they had been the victims of aggressive stalking tactics by paparazzi.

In a letter to the Assembly's Judiciary Committee, Stone recounted her own experience with paparazzi and urged the bill's passage to guarantee to her and other actors “the rights and privileges, safety and security of every other American.”

In testimony before the committee, Richard Masur, president of the Screen Actors Guild, asked: “If you can't come onto my property to take my picture or record a conversation without my permission, why should you be able to invade my privacy by projecting yourself onto my property through the use of a telephoto lens or parabolic microphone?”

Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association,
said the bill would establish the “presumption that if the media shoots from a public vantage point into a private one, then there is automatically liability.”

“It seems they just want to cut through all of the constitutional clutter and say, 'If you shoot onto private property, then you burn,” Newton said.

Newton said any legislation is premature, considering the court system hasn't finished hearing the key Shulman v. Group W case, in which two women claim their rights to privacy were violated after a car accident.

In that case, the women sued a CBS-owned production company, one claiming 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.

In sending the case back to the trial court, the justices said the reporters could be held liable if they violated the women's expectations of privacy and if such intrusion was offensive.

“In our opinion, the Schulman case created a whole new ball game in California, but in that ball game, we don't even know who's on first,” Newton said. “The trial court hasn't heard the case again, so we're all waiting.”