Together, the images form a photo album of an American dilemma:
A mob of cameras outside the Lewinsky house waits for a glimpse of Monica. Alec Baldwin brings his newborn daughter home from the hospital and punches a photographer in the process. Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, newscaster Maria Shriver, are cut off in their Mercedes by a couple of videographers while driving their son to school.
Ever since Britain’s Princess Diana died in a Paris tunnel as her chauffeur tried to outrun a pack of paparazzi, the nation has been torn between its appetite for candid pictures of famous people and its distaste for the methods used to get them. Lawmakers have tried for years to rein in a tabloid media and still protect the public’s right to know, each time running afoul of the First Amendment.
But legislation sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and slated for introduction later this month could turn the tables in the skirmishes between the famous and the photographers who pursue them - not to mention assuage the conscience of a nation hopelessly star-struck, but still believing that even celebrities need some space.
The Personal Privacy Protection Act, which Feinstein plans to tout at a Los Angeles news conference Tuesday, would preserve the age-old right to photograph celebrities in public and sell the film, but would crack down on actions that could jeopardize their safety in the process.
Unlike earlier proposed laws, this one does not attempt to regulate what the media use or whom they photograph. The bill expressly states that publication of even illegally obtained material is not against the law.
Nor does it give celebrities special legal status not afforded anyone else.
The bill addresses only the action a photographer takes to get a picture - specifically forbidding “persistent chasing or following” - and only if the picture is intended for sale.
To engage in such activities would be a federal crime punishable by up to a year in prison, at least five years if bodily harm results and at least 20 years if a death occurs.
The bill would also update the definition of trespassing to include zoom lenses and other enhancement devices, a provision intended to stop photographers from peering into bedrooms and back yards without actually stepping on private property. Use of such technology would be grounds for a civil suit if it produced film that could not otherwise have been taken without physically trespassing.
“This is terrible. This isn’t fair,” one paparazzo protested, declining to be identified. “Celebrities don’t have any rights. When they choose to become famous, they give up their rights. This is unconstitutional.”
American Civil Liberties Union officials also question the bill’s constitutionality and said they do not believe they can support it.
“It burdens the First Amendment,” said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California. “A lot of the crimes mentioned are already covered by state law, and we don’t need more national crimes regulating the press.”
But several other legal experts, even those who have found previous legislative attempts targeting paparazzi unconstitutional, say this bill is different.
“Endangering someone isn’t protected by the First Amendment,” said University of Southern California law professor Erwin Chemerinsky, one of three legal scholars who helped draft the legislation. “Trespassing isn’t protected by the First Amendment. What this bill prohibits is conduct the government constitutionally can regulate.”
The bill’s authors concede that much of what the legislation would ban is already outlawed in most states. But a federal law would fill in the gaps and send a message that the problem has grown severe enough to require congressional intervention, they said.
“This is an important symbol in saying the federal government is acting to protect a group that is threatened,” Chemerinsky said.
The bill has won the valuable endorsement of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee. And if it is not the answer to Hollywood’s prayers, it comes awfully close.
“This is not just for movie stars and politicians but for anyone whose privacy might be invaded in an environment where this is more and more possible all the time,” said Richard Masur, president of the Screen Actors Guild, which was instrumental in writing the bill. “We think this legislation will deal with 85 percent to 90 percent of the most egregious behavior.”
It was 13 years ago that actor Sean Penn launched a much-publicized attack on two British journalists trying to photograph Madonna, who was then his fiancee. That incident focused attention on the issue, and since then actors increasingly have complained of paparazzi who curse, spit, leap out of bushes, even harass their children for a photo.
Photographers have been known to sneak into hospitals posing as AIDS patients. And actor George Clooney boycotted the Paramount television shows “Entertainment Tonight” and “Hard Copy” after the latter aired tape by paparazzi who staged a fake birthday party at a restaurant as an excuse to bring cameras and, under the guise of filming themselves, record the actor and a female friend at a nearby table.
“The thing about the (paparazzi) is they don’t just want a picture of you and me sipping tea,” Feinstein said. “They want me picking up a baseball bat and hitting somebody. There is an element of provocation to it.”
Feinstein marshaled three of the best constitutional minds in the country - Chemerinsky, Harvard University’s Larry Lessig and University of Chicago’s Cass Sunstein - to sit down with her at her Los Angeles office. Joining them were Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Masur and a couple of celebrity lawyers.
In less than four hours, they scribbled on yellow legal paper the draft of the bill that Hollywood thinks would go a long way toward taming paparazzi without stepping on the toes of the mainstream media.
“If Sen. Feinstein is able to steer this bill through the Senate, we owe her a debt of gratitude,” said Pat Kingsley, president of PMK Public Relations, which represents celebrities such as Tom Cruise and Schwarzenegger, and handled Diana’s boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, who died with her. “‘It would be a welcome relief for people in the entertainment world.”