Paparazzi bill on its way to Senate committee

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Supporters say it’s about time; opponents say it unfairly targets a profession that is built on an existing “huge market.”

By Sherene Tagharobi / Special to The Malibu Times

An “invasion of privacy” bill that was in part motivated by clashes between paparazzi and Malibu celebrities and locals has passed the California Senate Judiciary Committee and will soon be on its way to the Senate Appropriations Committee to be analyzed for its fiscal impact, according to Assembly Speaker Karen Bass’ office.

Bass is the author of AB 524, which would amend existing law so that a person who sells, broadcasts, photographs or films a person while “engaged in a personal or familial activity violates the state’s ‘invasion of privacy’ statute” if that person has knowledge that the image or recording was illegally obtained and they were paid for the use of or rights to the images or recordings, according to bill literature.

The bill would also extend enforcement powers to local prosecuting agencies.

“We’re hoping the extension of enforcement powers will put some teeth into current law,” said Eric Astacaan, the state’s staff contact on the bill.

Opponents to the bill say it violates First Amendment rights, while supporters say such a bill is long overdue.

Malibu City Councilmember Pamela Conley Ulich volunteered last year to work with the Los Angeles Regional County Task Force that was the impetus for the bill to address what she said has been a threat to public safety.

Ulich said she has many friends whose children attend Malibu public schools, and that some of them have been mistaken for celebrities and harassed by paparazzi.

“Some of my friends were chased on PCH and were fearful for their life,” Ulich said. “My friend had a three-year-old in the back of the car and paparazzi were on all sides of them.”

“Those are the things we’re trying to stop from happening,” Astacaan said. “We’re not trying to shut down their [the paparazzi] business, but they have to be responsible and not put people in danger.”

Malibu has a long-standing history with paparazzi. Last summer, the city made headlines when photographers tried to capture images of Matthew McConaughey surfing at Little Dume beach. A brawl broke out between the photographers and local residents. Skylar Peak, then 24, and Phillip Hildebrand, then 30, were each charged with one misdemeanor count of battery for the incident. Both defendants are set for jury trial Aug. 7 in the Malibu courthouse.

Don Zachary, a media lawyer who has represented the celebrity gossip Web site and TV show TMZ, among other media organizations, said the bill does a poor job at balancing the issue with First Amendment rights. Other opponents, including the California Newspapers Publishers Association, are also against it for that reason.

Zachary said he agrees with Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton in that “we’ve got more than enough laws. All we need to do is enforce the ones we have.”

California’s current “invasion of privacy” statute states that anyone who trespasses is liable when the trespass is committed with the intent of capturing an image or recording while the subject is engaged in a personal or familial activity, and if the invasion occurs in a manner that would be offensive to a reasonable person.

Speaker Bass wants to take that a step further. “Out of control paparazzi are an increasing threat -not only to the celebrities they stalk but to the public at large if they happen to get in their way,” she wrote in a formal statement. “As long as this reckless behavior remains lucrative, the current laws on the books won’t be enough to prevent it. That’s why AB 524 goes after the money that spurs reckless paparazzi activity and allows for sanctions against those who knowingly sell or use these ill-gotten images.”

“This is a misguided effort to crack down on a problem that doesn’t exist,” said Zachary, who is also a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication. “It feels like a typical political move trying to gain points at the expense of the media.”

Astacaan said the obsession with celebrity is too much. “If they’re [a celebrity] just going grocery shopping, do we really need to know what they’re buying?”

But Zachary said paparazzi wouldn’t exist if there weren’t a huge market for them. In the meantime, he said, they are just an easy target. “Photographers are not a very attractive group of people,” Zachary said. “They don’t have a big constituency. People tend to sneer at them until they’re standing in line at Vons or Ralphs looking at their photos. So it’s easy for a politician to say, ‘Look at what I’m doing, I’m beating up on these scummy people who all they do is take pictures of celebrities.’”