Celebrities, news media testify in paparazzi bill hearings
WASHINGTON, D.C.–The House of Representatives’ Committee on the Judiciary in late May held a hearing on two pending bills that would make it a federal crime under some circumstances to pursue a person for the purpose of taking a picture or making a tape recording. At the hearing, one congressman indicated that he was considering introducing an additional piece of legislation designed to prohibit high-tech eavesdropping and photography.
The committee heard testimony from two panels of witnesses. The first panel consisted of actors Paul Reiser and Michael J. Fox and victims’ rights advocate Ellen Levin, the mother of the victim in New York’s infamous “preppie murder” case. The panel told stories of problems they had with coverage of their personal lives.
The second panel featured representatives from the news media, persons who worked regularly with celebrities, and law professors. Members of the panel made statements and answered questions from the committee, primarily about the constitutionality of the proposed legislation and its potential effect on newsgathering.
One of the two bills, introduced by the late Rep. Sonny Bono (R- Calif.) in September 1997, would make it illegal to persistently chase someone in an attempt to photograph or record him or her for commercial purposes if that person has a reasonable expectation of privacy and has taken precautions to protect that privacy. A conviction for such “harassment” could lead to a prison sentence of not less than 20 years if the person being pursued dies as a result of the chase, not less than five years if the person is seriously injured, or no more than one year if nobody is hurt.
The bill would also allow lawsuits against violators, though it protects those who solicit, buy, use or sell material obtained by such “harassment” from criminal charges and lawsuits unless they participated in the chase.
In a statement endorsed by several news organizations including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Paul McMasters, First Amendment Ombudsman for the Freedom Forum, described the proposed legislation as unnecessary, unwise and unconstitutional.
“It is possible for good writers to tell credible stories from a distance, but photographers must be there, must have access to the people and the events that make the news,” he said. “Their ability to tell a graphic story is compromised, however, if they are forced to second-guess themselves in the fleeting moment when news comes into focus in their lenses. It is an instant too easily lost if reflexes are dulled by the threat of civil suits and prosecution under ambiguous laws.”
In February, after Bono died in a skiing accident, Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Calif.) introduced a bill similar to Bono’s proposal. During opening remarks at the May hearing, Gallegly said that committee chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) asked him to “take the lead” after Bono’s death.
During his opening remarks, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) indicated that he was considering introducing legislation designed to prohibit the use of telephoto lenses, high-power microphones, and similar devices to gather information about people’s private lives.
Conyers said that “this is not just celebrity legislation,” noting that it would protect the privacy of the President of the United States. (H.R. 2448; H.R. 3224)