Justin Bieber: Legal Groundbreaker?

A new law against paparazzi sounds like a good idea, but it endangers first amendment rights

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Darren Calabrese / The Canadian Press / AP

Justin Bieber poses for photographs on the red carpet during the 2011 MuchMusic Video Awards in Toronto on June 19, 2011.

Justin Bieber is living the celebrity dream. It is not his platinum albums, his millions of worshipful “Beliebers,” or his estimated $55 million annual income at the ripe old age of 18. Last week he did something really big: he got a paparazzo arrested.

Celebrity photographer Paul Raef was allegedly part of a group of vehicles that followed Bieber on Los Angeles’ 101 Freeway July 6 at speeds of up to 80 m.p.h.  What makes Raef’s arrest particularly notable: he is the first person to be charged under a new California law aimed at reining in celebrity photographers.

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The law, AB 2479, carries tough penalties — including prison — for photographers who follow celebrities too closely by car or block sidewalks. Not surprisingly, it has a lot of support from Hollywood, but it should make people who care about freedom of speech uncomfortable.

Paparazzi have been hounding celebrities for a long time. The word – Italian dialect for a buzzing insect — was coined in the 1960 Frederico Fellini film “La Dolce Vita,” which had a news photographer character named Paparazzo. In the 1970s, Ron Gallela stalked Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. In the 1980s and 1990s, packs of paparazzi followed Diana, Princess of Wales.

Diana’s death — in a car crash in Paris while being chased by photographers — was a wake-up call for many celebrities who began to fight back against the paparazzi culture. In 2010, AB 2479 was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, himself a frequent target over the years.

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But it’s already a crime in California to willfully interfere with someone driving a car, to follow a car more closely than is reasonable and prudent, or to drive recklessly. AB 2479 upped the ante, making car chasing with the intent to photograph or sound record punishable by jail — as much as a year if there is a child in the car. The law also makes it possible to charge photojournalists with “false imprisonment” if they block the sidewalk.

It is not hard to see the good intentions behind AB 2479. The Diana and Bieber chases show how paparazzi can pose a risk not only to the celebrities they are following, but ordinary people who just happen to be driving nearby. But there is a real problem with AB 2479: it imposes extra punishment on journalists just for being journalists. The law more than doubles the punishment for reckless driving if it is with the intent to capture and image or sound recording — and the punishment is more than six times as heavy as normal when there is a child involved.

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All this raises serious first amendment issues. Celebrity photographers stalking stars may not be the most sympathetic group. But AB 2479 does not just apply to them — it covers anyone trying to take a photograph or audio recording. That means a television news crew trying to get a scandal-plagued mayor to answer some questions could be arrested by the mayor’s own police force and threatened with prison. A journalist who waits outside a corporate headquarters to pose a question to the CEO could be charged with “false imprisonment.”

Play it out, and it all seems fairly Soviet Union pre-1991, especially since we are all photojournalists now – if we see something that does not look right, we can take out our smart phone and make a video recording. AB 2479 could turn a video of police brutality taken by a ordinary citizen into a jail sentence.

(MORE: A New First Amendment Right: Videotaping the Police)

The press should not get special privileges — if they drive recklessly or put people in danger they should be subject to every reckless driving and endangerment law on the books — but they should also not be singled out for special punishment. Along with AB 2479, the photographer charged with following Bieber was accused of reckless driving and failing to obey a peace officer. Those are good, old-fashioned crimes that anyone can commit. Prosecutors should stick to those.

21 comments
honorableschoolboy
honorableschoolboy

Referring to the paparazzi as a celebrity photographer is like saying a mosquito is working for the Red Cross at Blood Donations. 

ExposingTheMatrix
ExposingTheMatrix

I will never understand how just because these paparazzi have cameras, it's not considered stalking.. When that's exactly what they are doing: Stalking. But if some girl doesn't have a camera, then she does to prison for stalking. America..

CodourFather
CodourFather

What about the rights of the other motorists in adjacent cars to safe travel? This is not freedom it is carrion feeding in its most post modern evolutionary manifestation. Celebrities big and small need to black out their windows and the Paparazzi need to be stopped from endangering others for their own greed.

RobertSF
RobertSF

"That means a television news crew trying to get a scandal-plagued mayor to answer some questions could be arrested by the mayor’s own police force and threatened with prison."

===

If the television news crew is chasing the scandal-plagued mayor at 100 mph down the freeway, it should be arrested! In fact, no one is required to make themselves available to the news. The news has no special privileges to access people. If a politician won't talk to you, show footage of him walking away from you.

womansurvivor
womansurvivor

I'm glad to hear of this law. I don't agree that because somebody has a career as a singer, actor, sportsperson or famous other, this makes them public property at all times, nor does the public have a "right to know" about every time they take a dump. As somebody else said, if you weren't a journalist, you'd be arrested for the sort of behaviour paparazzi engage in. Following, surveilling and harrassing are crimes.  I also agree with another poster who said that society in general needs to stop obsessing over celebrities. I mean, the Kardashians? Big deal! Why the hell do we want to know about their lives? Paparazzi vultures feed on that.

Endgame69
Endgame69

I think it's just, and why not? Just because a person is famous, those vultures won't let up on them. It's way past time the law starts clamping down on these so called journalists and start locking them up if the circumstance calls for it.

Michael Teagle
Michael Teagle

And this is where the first amendment needs amended. Time is only siding with the paparazzi because they are journalists at heart. I think if you willingfully and maliciously invade a persons life like most paparazzi tend to do that you should be reprimanded either by a citation or jail time. Just because you subject yourself to the public as your career doesn't mean you need to be photographed or recorded every second of your life as well.

JessiembvJacob
JessiembvJacob

Kimberly implied I am inspired that a student able to make $4380 in one month on the network. did you look at this(Click on menu Home)

Steve Felt
Steve Felt

There's a simple solution to this, people need to get a life and atop obsessing about actors, sports stars, and other public figures. they are just people for crying out loud!

charlie pycraft
charlie pycraft

Another blow to Freedom of Speech as we become ever more controlled.

womansurvivor
womansurvivor

 What about the freedom to live unhounded, stalked and pursued?

Bondurantboy
Bondurantboy

The  guy is 30 year old chasing a 18 years old Just to get a picture.   yes but if the news people so worry about being pull over wear the press pass of their station  It's that simple then tell them why you are going their. Now if the press want to beat the freedom of press. Then we need to look at the the celeb wave the right to privetecy. We treat them as property instead of humans. I do not think it fair to be doing that. They need a privite life to.  That jnvades the consutution of the USA.  You have the right to privetecy.  I hope some looks at the the celebs wave their right to privetecy and say what are we doing.  Now it's time we treat celebs as people not some high and mighty people. If they were normal people the police surly would let people hang around and take picture because it's invades the right to privetecy.  You people need to think this threw.  Before  Some one decide to take it to the surpreme court of the usa.

Bondurantboy
Bondurantboy

I think if the paparazzo would of pull when singal He would have got a ticket to instead of being arrest. He baseley disobay a police officer to pull over.

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If I was a cop, I would have nailed him for what he did. Justin just

has to drive the speed limit and not dodge traffic because all...

 

NutjobNumber1
NutjobNumber1

They aren't threatening Justin. Justin had a cell phone, he made a call while driving, He should have just pulled over, called 911 told them he is a rich famous celebrity that is getting flollowed by people that want to take his photograph so he can become even more famous and let them know he is requesting some special treatment because he's rich and famous.

If I was a cop, I would have nailed him for what he did. Justin just has to drive the speed limit and not dodge traffic because all they want are photographs.

RobertSF
RobertSF

Actually, Justin did get a ticket for speeding.