‘Paparazzi’ bill would duplicate privacy laws, shackle press, McMasters testifies

Friday, May 22, 1998

  • Testimony of Paul McMasters

    WASHINGTON — The Freedom Forum's First Amendment ombudsman told a House
    panel yesterday that a proposed federal law to protect celebrities from
    tabloid photographers threatens mainstream journalism and First Amendment

    State and local laws already offer adequate protections against invasion of
    privacy, trespass and harassment, Paul McMasters said in testimony before
    the House Judiciary Committee.

    “There is simply no need to require — by federal fiat — what state and
    local laws already cover,” he said. “There is simply no need to create
    another layer of regulation over one that already exists.”

    McMasters said a federal law would be “unwise” because it fails to recognize
    the public's interest in getting news and news images without
    government-imposed restrictions.

    “The First Amendment exists precisely to allow American citizens to form and
    assert the values they wish to live by,” he said.

    McMasters was joined by other news organization spokesmen and legal experts
    in criticizing the so-called paparazzi bill, which would make it a federal
    crime for a photographer to threaten a subject or cause bodily injury in the
    pursuit of photographs or recordings.

    However, two television stars argued that it was time to send a message to
    the news media that harassment, trespassing and physical endangerment are

    “When they chase my family and me in an airport, or even worse, on a
    highway, or when they sit in a tree and keep us under surveillance in order
    to photograph us inside our home, that is not consensual,” said Paul Reiser,
    star of the NBC-TV series “Mad About You.”

    “I can't imagine that any reasonable person in this room would disagree that
    this conduct is dangerous and intrusive,” Reiser said.

    Michael J. Fox, star of the ABC sitcom “Spin City,” agreed.

    “They have chased me on foot and in my car, yelled obscene comments at my
    entire family, and literally staked out my home, on a 24-hour basis, in
    hopes of capturing that one photograph that will win them the bounty,” he

    But media representatives countered that such legislation could be used to
    punish journalists who cover crime and disaster scenes and investigate
    government and private sector corruption.

    “It could affect a whole host of areas having nothing to do with
    entertainers,” said David Lutman, president of the National Press
    Photographers Association. “Its primary effect, however, will be to greatly
    reduce the legitimate newsgathering activities of journalists who obey the

    Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., the bill's main author, said the legislation
    would preserve the right of photographers to take pictures of celebrities in
    public and sell the film, while cracking down on actions that jeopardize
    their subjects' safety.

    But the bill allows prosecution of anyone who “persistently follows or
    chases any individual for the purpose of obtaining a visual image, sound
    recording or other physical impression if the image was to be sold,
    published or transmitted in interstate or foreign commerce.”

    News organizations warned that the broad wording of the legislation could
    dampen legitimate journalistic efforts to pursue news, thereby inhibiting
    the reporting of government and private sector corruption.

    Paul Tash, executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times, testified on
    behalf of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He said the proposed
    bill also protects “villains, frauds and scoundrels” against diligent
    photojournalists who expose their crimes.

    “The sponsors may think they are aiming only at the so-called paparazzi, but
    they will surely hit the rest of us, too,” he said.

    Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., the Judiciary Committee chairman, favors new
    federal controls. He said the “real issue” is finding a proper balance
    between the press' ability to gather news and the public's right to privacy
    and personal safety.

    “When in the guise of getting a story, the press puts someone at risk of
    death or serious injury, the First Amendment is no shield,” he said.

    But news organizations responded that the federal government should have no
    role in the matter since state and local courts have demonstrated a
    willingness to mete out harsh punishment for trespassing and other

    Earlier this year, two British photographers were convicted in a California
    court and sentenced to jail terms for their attempts to photograph actor
    Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife Maria Shriver, McMasters said.

    News executives also contended that a federal law is unnecessary because
    celebrities have effectively dealt with journalists they consider overly

    McMasters' testimony was endorsed by the American Society of Newspaper
    Editors, the Magazine Publishers of America, the Newspaper Association of
    America, the National Newspaper Association, the National Press
    Photographers Association, the Radio-Television News Directors Association,
    the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Society of
    Professional Journalists.

    McMasters told the panel that that photographers must have access to the
    people and events that make the news.

    “Their ability to tell a graphic story is compromised, however, if they are
    forced to second-guess themselves in the fleeting moment when news comes
    into focus in their lenses,” he said. “It is an instant too easily lost if
    reflexes are dulled by the threat of civil suits and prosecution under
    ambiguous laws.”

    Richard Masur, president of the 100,000-member Screen Actors Guild, argued
    that expensive and lightweight telephoto lenses and long-range listening
    devices have created new causes of action for privacy invasion or trespass.
    He said state laws against such violations were inconsistent and that
    federal laws were necessary to give comprehensive protection nationwide.

    However, Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors
    Association, said courts and legislatures were already free to punish those
    who use advanced technology to invade privacy when occupants have taken
    reasonable steps to shield themselves from prying eyes.

    “Laws that prohibit shooting a back yard with a telephoto lens may protect
    the privacy of a starlet in a bikini, but they might also block a news crew
    from taping the city mayor taking bribes,” she said.

    “The death of Princess Diana should not be used to trample on the First
    Amendment while further bloating the federal statute books with matters
    devoid of federal significance,” Cochran said.

    Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in a Paris tunnel last year. Early
    reports blamed photographers for recklessly pursuing her car through the
    tunnel, causing it to careen out of control.

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