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.”
Further bolstering the impression that he is not yet ready to take the California bar exam, Zine implies that elected government leaders sitting on their lofty thrones have a right to pass judgment on who is a member of the press and who isn't. “The paparazzi, for the most part, are not credentialed media,” he huffs. “There's a distinction between someone who just has a camera and … credentialed, legitimate media.”
That might be true in private conference rooms or in certain public places, like courthouses, where limited space results in journalists having to be screened, but it is not the case on the streets, says Douglas Lee, a Dixon, Illinois-based attorney who has handled media law for the Chicago Sun-Times and other newspapers.
“This notion we can somehow identify who's legitimate [press] and who's not is something government has never been involved in and runs contrary to everything the First Amendment is based on,” Lee says. “What inevitably will happen, if you allow government to say who can take pictures and who can't, is that somebody will make that decision based on the content of what will come out” in the photos. An essential thrust of the First Amendment, Lee adds, “is that government is going to stay out of regulating the press.”
CONSTITUTIONAL CONCERNS ASIDE, legal experts have a field day speculating on the practical problems. If the bubble around celebrities is 10 feet, who will determine whether a photographer was a legal 10 feet, two inches away or an illegal nine feet, 11 inches away?
“It's not like a football field,” chortles Corn-Revere, evoking images of officials hustling to stretch out chains. “Plus, presumably, celebrities are going to be in motion.” That might put a photographer in legal jeopardy for merely standing his ground. To avoid possible fines or arrest, a photographer might actually have to turn and flee.
It's also anyone's guess whether certain top-tier stars would be “'licensed' for protection,” as the London Times speculated. The ordinance might have to address whether Zine himself would have the prerogative to move about in a camera-free zone, and whether privileged status would apply to celebrity mass murderers — the next Charles Manson hauled into Parker Center.
“Celebrities, because of their celebrity status, should have far less expectation” of protection from the media than noncelebrities, points out Ronald K.L. Collins of the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C. “If you put yourself out in the public limelight and enjoy the glow of that light, you have to endure the flash bulbs.”
Libel laws already reflect that principle, but Los Angeles City Council members have never been particularly astute about the Constitution. Craig Smith, director of the Center for First Amendment Studies at Cal State Long Beach, recalls a proposal by former Councilman Mike Feuer aimed at banning liquor ads on certain billboards. The city ignored Smith's opinion that the law was likely unconstitutional — only to have the courts strike it down.
“City councils often do what's going to make their constituents happy without thinking about the U.S. Constitution,” Smith says.
As if to prove that true, Zine vows to push full speed ahead. Other than paparazzi, “Everyone thinks it's wonderful,” he says of his plan. “We've heard from celebrities, their agents, publicists and even the Screen Actors Guild.”