By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
LIGHTS, CAMERAS, LEGAL ACTION? That's the threat facing Los Angeles' free-roaming packs of paparazzi, if City Councilman Dennis Zine has his way.
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Agitated by "reckless" and "out-of-control" photographers who jam sidewalks, clog streets, and make it difficult even for ambulances to get past them — all in the scramble for shots of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and others — Zine wants a crackdown. His plan would force the tabloid mobs to literally back off, legislating a "'personal safety zone' ... of clear space" between paparazzi and their celebrity targets.
City officials have yet to offer even a clue as to how large the "protective bubble" around a celebrity would be — five feet, 10 feet, 20 feet, or even 20 yards, as some bloggers were speculating. Nor has the term celebrity been adequately defined to know whether the proposed ordinance would protect has-beens like Chevy Chase and Paula Abdul, or low-rung washouts like Fabio and the Geico caveman.
It's also a mystery how paparazzi would be distinguished from, say, the hordes pointing cameras outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre.
About the only thing that is clear is that Zine intends the measure, which he unveiled in a City Council motion on February 1, to address a problem on public sidewalks and thoroughfares — sacred bastions of First Amendment liberties since the days of the Founding Fathers. If adopted with the sort of language that Zine wants — that's highly unlikely, say knowledgeable legal scholars — the law would also keep paparazzi from chasing after celebrities by car or leaping out to snap photos when traffic stops, as they've done in tracking Spears' calamitous downfall.
"It's gotten out of control," Zine fumes to L.A. Weekly. "These folks drive in a careless, reckless fashion. They swarm a car the moment it stops. There are people taking photographs with flash, blinding the driver. We can't continue to tolerate the activity."
Zine's proposal has been taken seriously enough to gain worldwide attention. The Times of London, dubbing it the "Britney law," ran a detailed story explaining Los Angeles' growing throngs of paparazzi. "With the boom in Internet gossip sites, tabloid television and a host of star-oriented magazines over the past five years, the number of freelance photographers has risen from a few dozen to hundreds," the paper reports of L.A. "Many are young Britons working on tourist visas who claim they are Spears' last remaining friends."
ONE INCIDENT ALONE — when the wacked-out diva was hounded en route to getting psychiatric care — cost taxpayers $25,000 for police protection, says Zine. He sounds more upset about that rare expenditure than he does about the much bigger City Hall spending that has put the city in a massive deficit — now $75 million. Although Zine's motion has yet to receive any formal action or discussion, the councilman expresses hope that the paparazzi law will be on the books within six months.
Half a dozen council members contacted about the ordinance either did not return calls or have yet to reach an opinion about it. Bill Rosendahl, however, whose district includes fashionable Brentwood and who considers himself a personal friend of Warren Beatty, is strongly in Zine's camp, saying, "The paparazzi are out of control." Like Zine, Rosendahl cites the death of Princess Diana while trying to elude photographers as another reason to enact a law. "There are safety issues," he says. "There are just no boundaries at this particular moment."
Jack Weiss, chairman of the City Council's Public Safety Committee, which would conduct the initial review of the measure, is one of the undecided, releasing a statement saying he is "concerned about paparazzi" but needs "to hear from LAPD about what is enforceable and from the city attorney about what is lawful."
Therein lies the real problem — the extreme unlikelihood that this ordinance would survive even 10 minutes in court.
Veteran attorneys laugh out loud at some of the proposal's aims. "When you're out in public, in the public domain, the First Amendment applies," says Bob Corn-Revere, a noted Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who has co-authored a textbook on media law and argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. "That's what our whole system is based on."
Scholar David L. Hudson of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tennessee, agrees, saying the right of the media — reporters and photographers, alike — to gather news and take pictures on public ground is a cornerstone of democracy.
"I don't think it would pass constitutional muster," he says of Zine's plan, equating its possible passage to tossing "the First Amendment into the garbage can."
Zine, a feisty ex-cop, reacts to questions about constitutionality as if he's taken a little blast of pepper spray. "It's not about freedom of speech, it's not about freedom of the press, it's about safety for the general public," he snorts. Pressed to respond to criticisms by Corn-Revere, Hudson and others, Zine starts sounding like Steve Buscemi in Fargo.
"I'm not here to debate the issue," he retorts. "I'm not going to debate! If someone wants to challenge it in court, they can challenge it in court. We're not going to be intimidated by someone who doesn't like it."