02.25.10 10:43 PM ET
The Do-Nothing Paparazzi Law
Nearly 13 years after Princess Diana was killed in a car chase in a Paris tunnel, bringing to light the gruesome severity of the "paps" problem, there have been numerous attempts to curb the camera-toting breed first branded by Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita.
Since Diana's death, the problem has only gotten worse—on both sides. It was reported this week that Sean Penn may go to jail for a year and a half for allegedly kicking a photographer and breaking his camera. Nicole Richie was recently rear-ended by a kamikaze cameraman so hard that she went to the hospital. (She's fine.)
Click the Image to View Our Gallery of Celebrities Who Attack the Paps
The latest attempt to broker peace between stars and stalkers came in January, when a new anti-paparazzi law went into effect in California. Championed by Jennifer Aniston—after she was snapped topless in her backyard—and signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, himself a target, the bill was heralded as a major reform. In response to Aniston's plea that the paparazzi had become "a public safety issue—somebody's going to die if we don't do something," celebs can now sue not just photo agencies, but the media outlets that publish photos obtained by unlawful invasion of privacy, with fines as high as $50,000.
The law is an amendment to an earlier law from 1999—the first of its kind in the U.S., it was inspired by Diana's death—that states that photographers can not trespass on private property in order to obtain images, nor can they use a telephoto lens or other enhancing devices; a crime known as a "constructive invasion of privacy." In 2005, the law was further strengthened with a clause stating that the paps could not assault an individual, such as by chasing them in a car or physically harassing them. (Hence, when Richie's car was hit, she was able to sue and receive an injunction.) Until now, it was only the photographers and their agencies that were held responsible; now Web sites, magazines, and other publications can be sued.
But in several conversations with entertainment lawyers, photo agencies, celebrity media outlets, and photographers, the consensus is unanimous: The new law is largely ineffective, or at least no more effective than the original law.
No one interviewed was aware of any lawsuits that have yet been filed. As one source at a major celebrity magazine put it, "we're pretty anal" about not publishing photographs that appear to have been obtained by shady means. "We certainly had a chat with our attorney [about the new law], and there was a moment of—what's going to happen? But we haven't really experienced anything from the situation.
"You can just tell by looking at a photo if it's a violation, and we know the people we cover well enough that if it's someone's backyard, or if it's through a window, something's wrong."
Brandi Navarre, the co-owner of the celebrity photo agency and Web site x17, said the law "doesn't affect us. The media picked up on the story, which is sexy in some ways—they want to demonize what we do—but the truth is, it's an amendment to an already existing law," Navarre said. "All it says is that our clients can be held for libel. No one's even talking about it."
Even attorneys who represent celebrities—a group that the law is intended to help—are dubious. "The law has not been that effective since it was enacted in 1999," said Michael Weinsten, Paris Hilton's longtime attorney (his firm also represents Penn). "The media companies will have to be more careful in what they do, but I don't think it's going to stop the paparazzi. If they can get a million bucks for a photo, they're gonna do it."
Endemic to the problem is that the nature of the paparazzi has changed dramatically over the years. They may be called the "stalkerazzi," but the reality is that the paps rarely have to play sniper anymore. Long gone are the days of climbing palm trees in order to see into someone's backyard or—as famed paparazzo Ron Galella once did, sneaking into the neighbor's and climbing up on the roof in order to snap Doris Day sunning by her swimming pool.
"We get so many tips from celebrities," Navarre said. "They'll call and tell me where they're gonna be and what time. When my guys don't show up, or are five minutes late, they call up, 'Where are they?' I'm like, could you wait five minutes?
"The whole, covert, hidden type of paps doesn't exist anymore. These days, a lot of photographers don't know how to be paparazzi."
Weinsten challenges this, pointing to the Aniston case, where "paparazzi jumped a fence, and took a picture of her backyard, where she was topless by the pool. So the notion that paparazzi aren't jumping fences to see a celebrity—that's inaccurate."
But there's no denying that many celebs—particularly the famous-for-being-famous types, which the media can't seem to get enough of—aren't living in lockdown mode.
"The best year I ever got with Jackie Onassis when I shot her 20 times in one year. That was 1970," said Galella. "That's not a lot of photos. But nowadays, you see Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton—they're bombarded day and night. And they love it. They are stars who love it. They're not as talented or important as Jackie or Liz Taylor. I call them featherweights. But they get more publicity than the heavyweights got years ago."
Stars' openness also means they're less likely to be assaulted by the paps. If anything, more celebs are attacking photographers. Penn could face 18 months in jail on charges of misdemeanor battery and vandalism due to an incident last October when he allegedly kicked a photographer. As this video shows, the photographer was several feet away from Penn, shooting on a public street (hence no trespassing) in Brentwood.
Penn has had several run-ins over the years and has served time before—in 1987—after attacking a photographer on a film set.
"He's a bad boy. He's got a short temper," said Galella, who got to know that temper in the early 1980s, when he followed Penn and Madonna from a restaurant back to their apartment on the Upper West Side. Penn reacted by screaming at Galella and his fellow photographers and then "spitting at me," Galella said. "He was evil, really, and he even got a broomstick and was swinging it at the paparazzi.
As the group was leaving, Penn punched a photographer in the face. "He had a bloody nose and a black eye. It was a dirty trick."
Even so, Galella admits that the paparazzi "have gone too far."
"In L.A., especially, more than New York, they like to create an incident, like to have Britney Spears trip with her baby… It's crazy, it's provoking, and I don't like that. There are beautiful pictures of celebrities, without provoking them."
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.