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Is California going too far to protect celebrity kids from paparazzi?

A new California law toughens fines and jail time for paparazzi who harass children. But some groups say the law is too broad and could hurt more legitimate news gathering.

Paparazzi and parents are an increasingly volatile mix in Hollywood, with actresses such as Jennifer Garner and Halle Berry asking lawmakers to do something to protect their children from aggressive celebrity photographers. California Gov. Jerry Brown responded Tuesday by signing legislation that would raise fines and jail time to the maximum threshold for a misdemeanor – up to a year in jail and $10,000 for a first offense.

But the law is opposed by more than the celebrity-hungry shutterbugs. The Motion Picture Association of America and the California Newspaper Publishers Association have joined legal analysts and reporters concerned that the law may be overly broad and interfere with legitimate news gathering and other legal activities.

“I expect this law to be challenged the first time prosecutors take a photographer to court,” says Lou Virelli, a constitutional law professor at Stetson University in central Florida.

The law targets “any person who intentionally harasses the child or ward of any other person because of that person’s employment.” It further specifies that harassment means knowing and willful conduct directed at a specific child that seriously alarms, annoys, torments, or terrorizes the child and that serves no legitimate purpose – and that includes recording an image or voice.

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These provisions worry education reporter Andrea Johnson, who writes for the Minot Daily News in South Dakota. She often covers children’s issues and notes that there are already many privacy protections in place for most children. It is very easy for parents to get riled up over privacy concerns when a new law passes.

“I am concerned that this might spread to other states,” fanned by parents who have growing concerns over the privacy rights of their own children, she says.  “It’s hard enough to do our jobs” without having new restrictions such as the requirement to get written permission from parents for legitimate interviews with their children, Ms. Johnson adds. 

Legal challenges to the statute are likely, says Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “Reporters and paparazzi will claim it infringes on their First Amendment rights,” she says via e-mail.

There are already laws on the books that prohibit stalking and assaults of celebrities and everyone else. Prosecutors might find it challenging to apply the actual terms of this statute, she says. “Questions will arise as to the paparazzi’s intent and whether their obnoxious behavior is the same as harassment or threatening behavior.”

Not all legal observers agree. There is no First Amendment right to harass others, says constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California at Irvine Law School. California’s new law does not create any new crime, “It simply increases the punishment under existing laws for those who intentionally engage in harassing conduct directed at children that makes them fear for their safety,” he says via e-mail.

Professor Levenson says this law will give celebrities more ammunition to ask law enforcement to get involved in protecting their privacy and the privacy of their children. “While I’m not sure anything will really stop aggressive paparazzi, if one goes to jail, the others might think twice,” she adds.

The real solution to this problem lies elsewhere, suggests Gordon Coonfield, a communication professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia. Paparazzi are  merely middlemen, feeding a celebrity-hungry culture. Just as in the war on drugs, focusing on the middleman is a losing proposition, he adds.  

“There will be an endless supply of hungry and ambitious photographers (or even people with cellphones) stepping up to fill the void,” he says via e-mail. “Who is really responsible for the harassment of the famous and the children of the famous? We are. Everyone who picks up a tabloid paper while waiting to check out at the drug store.”