Earlier this year, Steven Tyler decided that photographers who take unwanted photos of him should be punished. We’re not talking about a paparazzo taking a photo of him through his bedroom window (that’s already illegal, of course). No, he meant pretty much any unwanted picture. He actually managed to persuade some starstruck lawmakers in Hawaii to back him up. The Steven Tyler Act passed in the State Senate but ultimately did nothing besides make Hawaii look stupid. It faded away once it got to the House.
Lately, though, in California, some far more credible celebrities have gotten much more traction. Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that would increase fines and penalties for photographers who harass the children of stars. It strengthens a law already on the books that prohibits anyone from bothering children because of their parents’ occupations (like, say, an angry defendant who targets the child of a judge). Halle Berry and Jennifer Garner made a compelling case in Sacramento. Berry described taking her daughter to school: ”They jump out of bushes, they jump out of cars,” she said. ”All of a sudden a seemingly normal schoolyard…turns into what feels like a battleground. Here come these men with their cameras, besieging the school and these little children.” Other stars like Sandra Bullock have thanked them for standing up, and every decent person on the planet agreed that Violet Affleck really should not have to deal with big scary guys with cameras.
And yet there has been opposition. No one, of course, believes that harassing innocent children is justifiable. But the California Newspaper Publishers Association and other media groups warn that language in the new legislation is actually too broad and could interfere with legitimate newsgathering activities. We don’t yet know what kind of impact the legislation will have, if any. And I suspect that eventually a judge will have to weigh in. As a journalist, I’m embarrassed by the behavior of some paparazzi, these jerks who would frighten a kid to get a rise out of her famous mom. At the same time, I’m also concerned by any legislation that could potentially chip away at the First Amendment. We live in a strange time. Our collective obsession with celebrities’ lives has created a bottomless market for illicit photos and outrageous headlines. And let’s be honest, there are celebrities who exploit every scrap of their lives — that includes their offspring — for a few bucks and all the attention they can eat. Legitimate journalists and actors may differ on the constitutional merits of the California legislation. But they do have a common enemy, namely any blog or outlet or photographer who disregards truth and fairness. Children should be protected. So should the First Amendment. And shame on anyone who abuses either.