Pushed by such celebrities as Halle Berry and Jennifer Garner, state lawmakers are considering yet another proposal aimed at taming aggressive packs of paparazzi. The new bill, by Sen. Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles), would take a state law that bars harassing the children of celebrities and other newsmakers one step further, banning such kids from being photographed or recorded without parental permission if the photographer caused “substantial emotional distress.”
It’s horrible that paparazzi swarm and heckle children just because their parents happen to be famous, and it would be great to find a way to shield innocent kids from the public’s voyeuristic fascination with celebrities. But De Leon’s proposal isn’t it.
The fact that De Leon even offered his bill, SB 606, is testament to how little use authorities have made of the existing laws aimed at abusive paparazzi. This measure wouldn’t outlaw anything that isn’t already illegal; instead, it would just clarify that photographers could be found guilty of harassing a celebrity’s child even when there was no physical contact. It also would stiffen the penalties for harassing these children and give parents the right to sue for damages.
Supporters of the bill say these steps are necessary because police have been reluctant to file harassment charges against paparazzi and lawyers have hesitated to sue them. The penalties in the current law are insufficient to motivate prosecutors and plaintiffs’ attorneys, they say, and 1st Amendment concerns deter legal action against paparazzi who ambush, corner and hurl obscenities at celebrities and their children.
The more lawmakers try to crack down on one (loathsome) segment of the news media, however, the closer they come to impairing legitimate newsgathering in violation of the U.S. Constitution. De Leon has tried to avoid 1st Amendment issues by focusing the bill on how photographers get their pictures and videos rather than on the content of those recordings. But it’s easy to imagine celebrity parents accusing photographers of harassment simply because they captured their children in an embarrassing light. The bill also could expose photographers and camera operators to prosecution or lawsuits for staking out newsworthy minors because the minors’ parents happen to be famous.
That’s not to dismiss the very real concerns raised by the parents who have lobbied for De Leon’s bill. The tactics used by some paparazzi are abhorrent and indefensible. But rather than having the Legislature pass another law to address what is largely a local problem for a small group of people on Los Angeles’ Westside, police and prosecutors should enforce the anti-harassment statute that’s already on the books. Children shouldn’t be harassed, no matter who their parents are. But the answer is better enforcement, not another potentially unconstitutional law.