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California Climate Chills to Ever-Present Paparazzi

Sen. Dianne Feinstein to introduce bill to limit the pursuit of Hollywood celebrities.

By James BlairSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 4, 1998



LOS ANGELES

The paparazzi have always been a fixture of Hollywood.

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In fact, there is an enduring symbiotic relationship between those who bring their long Nikon snouts to the latest film premire at the Mann's Chinese Theater and the parade of glitterati whose careers often depend on the right kind of exposure.

But when photographers become too aggressive in pursuing stars for less-than flattering poses, those who work and live here have had little legal recourse - until now. Efforts to rein in tabloid photojournalists have tended to run afoul of free-speech protections provided by the Constitution.

Since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, however, a shift appears under way in the public and judicial climate of California. Recent cases - involving actors Alec Baldwin and Arnold Schwarzenegger - indicate judges and jurors are ready to draw new boundaries for paparazzi. In Washington, lawmakers are also preparing to introduce federal legislation designed to give public figures privacy without usurping the First Amendment.

Confrontations between paparazzi and their targets have escalated, says Screen Actors Guild (SAG) president Richard Masur - in some cases dangerously so.

At home and abroad well-known actors have been "cursed, jostled, sometimes knocked to the ground, [even] spat upon," says Mr. Masur. "Anything to provoke a violent, frightened response."

Last spring, the two photographers chased movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, still recovering from heart surgery, and his pregnant wife, NBC news correspondent Maria Shriver, as they were driving their son to preschool.

"Arnold Schwarzenegger was not pursued [simply] so his picture could be taken," asserts Masur. "He was pursued to create an event, a picture of him being upset, furious, or terrified.... A picture of Arnold Schwarzenegger in a car isn't going to sell to anybody."

Last week, Superior Court Judge Robert Altman fined two photographers $500 each and sentenced one to 90 days in jail and the other to 60 days in jail. Judge Altman called the behavior of the photographers "morally wrong." Both are now free on bail pending the appeal of their case.

In another possible sign of a shift in attitude, a jury recently acquitted actor Alec Baldwin of battery charges. Mr. Baldwin punched a photographer waiting in the street outside his home the day he brought his wife, Kim Basinger, and their newborn baby back from the hospital. Baldwin still faces a $1 million civil suit.

Similar incidents in the past have often resulted in punishment of the celebrity, not the photographer. But Masur says most celebrities have been unwilling to take legal action against their tormentors because they fear retribution.

Now, however, legislation expected to be introduced next week by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California and co-sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah may level the playing field.

The Personal Privacy Protection Act would make it a federal crime to "persistently follow or chase another person in a manner which causes them to have reasonable fear of bodily injury in order to film them or record them for commercial purposes." Penalties include up to a year in prison, five years if an injury is involved, and "at least 20 years" if there is a death.

The bill would also allow civil actions if a photographer trespassed or used "visual or auditory enhancement devices" such as telephoto lenses, parabolic microphones, or helicopters.

Unlike earlier attempts to restrain overly aggressive photojournalists, says University of Southern California law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, this law is "very narrow. At the time of Princess Diana's death, there were suggestions to create buffer zones around celebrities, to restrict taking of photographs, or to license paparazzi - all unconstitutional. This [bill] prohibits reckless endangerment and trespass for commercial purposes. The First Amendment doesn't protect [that]."

But critics say the law, in effect, makes celebrities a protected class. "The law is not supposed to give [public figures] as strong a protection because they have, in most instances, voluntarily brought themselves to the public's attention," says Kelli Sager, a Los Angeles attorney specializing in First Amendment cases. "I don't think the law is necessary to protect people from harassment or illegal conduct." There are state laws already covering that, she notes, citing the Schwarzenegger case.