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Proposed California anti-paparazzi law could interfere with news gathering
August 16, 2013 - Andrea Johnson
Celebrities like Halle Berry and Jennifer Garner are tired of paparazzi staking out their homes and their children's schools and sticking cameras in their faces. They want California to pass a law requiring that photographers have signed permission from a parent or legal guardian before they take a child's picture. Both Garner and Berry testified in favor of the bill, which was passed on to the California state Appropriations Committee. State media oppose the bill because they believe it will interfere with news gathering.
Certainly, the privacy of all children – not just the children of celebrities – is a delicate balancing act, particularly in an era when any photo that is posted on Facebook and any newspaper article posted online that features a child can be seen by anyone in the world. But, while I certainly sympathize with the children of Garner and Berry, who didn't ask to have famous parents, I have to take the side of the media. There are likely existing laws against stalking and harassment that could be used to prosecute the aggressive paparazzi who follow and relentlessly photograph their youngsters. The vast majority of ethical reporters do not behave in such a manner. It is not necessary to require that news reporters get signed permission slips from all parents before photographing a child in public.
From a legal standpoint, in most places a reporter or photographer in the United States can currently take a picture of an adult or child in a public place and publish it in the newspaper or air video on television. Permission from the child's parent or guardian is not required. As a matter of courtesy, I do try to identify myself to an adult with the child and ask for verbal permission to interview the child and run the photograph in the newspaper. If either the child or adult says "no," I won't use the photo and will look for someone else to feature in the story.
However, I don't have to do that and I also worry that, by asking permission every time, I could be setting a precedent that might make it more difficult for future journalists to cover stories. Once people are accustomed to reporters (or amateur photographers) asking permission before they take photos in public, they may believe it is illegal for them not to ask permission, even though it is not. Will my actions make it easier for the police to harass a newspaper photographer who happens to take a photograph of children playing in the park or of an accident scene or a fire, for instance?
Public and private schools are a little different, because they are somewhat restricted to the general public during school hours. When I am dealing with schools, I call ahead days in advance and request that the principal or teacher check a list of kids in the class I will be covering to determine which, if any, of the children have parents who do not want them photographed. Once there, the teacher points out those children to me and I avoid photographing them or approaching them for an interview. That's been the school district policy for the last decade or so. At one point, it was less stringent.
I've seen some schools take that policy even further and suggest that newspaper reporters use only first names for a child they are interviewing. Some newspapers seem to have honored those requests, which I think is a mistake. I have refused to do that, also fearing that it would set a precedent I don't think should be set. I've made it clear that the newspaper must use first and last names for any child I interview for a story or identify in a photo caption. If the school or parents refuse to permit me to do a story under those conditions, the story simply isn't published.
For all of those reasons, I am troubled by the anti-paparazzi law that it looks like California is about to pass. I hope it does not spread to other state legislatures.
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