THE BLOG

To Force the Paparazzi to Clean up Their Act, Turn the Cameras on Them

07/03/2008 03:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

You know summer is here when hordes of paparazzi descend, locust-like, on southern California beaches, angering locals as they pursue money-shots of sun-tanning celebrities -- while politicians, seeing an opportunity for self-promotion, promise new laws to tame the unruly photogs.

It has become a political rite of summer: Paparazzi behave badly, and elected officials suspend their reading of National Enquirer and X17online.com long enough to call for draconian legislation that would undermine free speech rights while doing little, if anything, to curb the excesses of the camera-wielding mobs.

Trendy Malibu is the setting for the latest iteration of this ritual. Confrontations between Paparazzi and Julia Roberts trying to exit the parking lot of the Malibu general store; between paparazzi and Pierce Brosnan outside a local eatery; and between paparazzi and local thugs claiming to protect fellow-surfer Matthew McConaughey, are among recent incidents that have generated interest in enacting anti-paparazzi laws.

Paparazzi who stalk celebrities are just voyeurs with a telephoto lens, not First Amendment heroes. Nonetheless, efforts to regulate their behavior would add nothing to the legal tools that already exist, while creating an unacceptable risk of infringing legitimate photojournalism.

Malibu Mayor Pamela Conley Ulich has reached out to former independent counsel (and Bill Clinton tormentor) Kenneth W. Starr -- who knows something about investigating the private lives of public figures -- to help draft an ordinance that would rein in the paparazzi (possibly by licensing them). Los Angeles City Councilmember Dennis Zine has proposed an ordinance that would, among other things, create a "personal safety zone" between paparazzi and their subjects.

Let's be clear. Photographers who stalk celebrities to give us the latest image of Britney Spears' cellulite are just voyeurs with a telephoto lens, not First Amendment heroes. Nonetheless, efforts to regulate their behavior through local ordinances would add nothing to the legal tools that already exist -- principally, laws against assault, battery and invasion of privacy -- while creating an unacceptable risk of infringing legitimate photojournalism or other Constitutionally protected activity. Anti-paparazzi laws, while appealing for obvious reasons, are a bad idea.

But that doesn't mean the people of Malibu (and other California cities contending with the same situation) are helpless to defend themselves from the invading swarm of paparazzi. Mayor Ulich and her supporters need to think more creatively.

Instead of wasting resources on legal experts, whose costly proposals ultimately will, in any event, be thrown out by the courts, the locals of Malibu should focus their efforts on doing to the paparazzi what the paparazzi have done to them and their rich and famous neighbors.

Malibu residents, armed with inexpensive video cameras, should train their lenses on the paparazzi. They should memorialize the photogs' worst behavior for the world to see online. YouTube-style video clips of paparazzi drinking while "working," harassing their subjects, and generally behaving like extras in the movie "Animal House," would be hugely popular as a website -- call it "NOTtmz.com."

Instead of wasting resources on legal experts, the locals of Malibu should focus their efforts on doing to the paparazzi what the paparazzi have done to them and their rich and famous neighbors.

And, if the site is well executed, it might be humiliating enough to shame the paparazzi into acting more like the professional photographers they claim to be.

Fight the paparazzi's images with more images, not with laws that attempt to suppress the paparazzi's work (and which could end up suppressing your work and mine some day). "NOTtmz.com" should not only display paparazzi at their most boorish and irresponsible, but also identify them by name and by the websites and publications that buy their photos and videos. This will add to the pressure on them to clean up their act.

Finally, let's not shed too many tears about the celebrities who make an avocation out of complaining bitterly that paparazzi are ruining their lives. Celebrities who go to beaches in Malibu for fun in the sun can't complain that they attract attention. If they want go unnoticed they should change careers or vacation in Maine.

And the good folks of Malibu may object to the crush of paparazzi in their quaint town, but that does not seem to diminish their appetite for the print and online publications that feature the work of those same photographers. Malibu's residents, like Americans everywhere, are hypocrites and enablers on this score. It's hard to feel too sorry for them.

So, enjoy the beach this summer. When the paparazzi arrive, be sure to suck in your gut, stop picking your nose -- and then pick up your camera and photograph the paparazzi.


Peter Scheer, a lawyer and journalist, is executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition. wwww.cfac.org