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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.


Article Comments



Aug-20-13 9:37 AM

From a legal standpoint, it depends on where you're at. If you're in a public place or at a public event, in general you can't stop the media from photographing you in the background. Nor should you be able to. If they ask you for an interview and you say no, most reporters will likely honor that and find someone else if they're doing a "man on the street" interview. If you're part of a newsworthy story, maybe not. They'll ask you for an interview and show your "no comment." You have a right to privacy in places where you have an expectation of privacy -- i.e., inside your home or someone else's private residence or on private property.


Aug-20-13 2:54 AM

How about the news media stops shoving cameras in peoples faces. The news media is sickening in this day and age, it's not news anymore. Just because you're a member of the media doesn't give you the right to stalk and harass people. I don't want my picture taken at any time and posted anywhere without my permission, and I should have the right to decide that.


Aug-19-13 11:28 AM

As for the celebrities themselves, the only things I know about their personal lives is what appears in the media. I've liked Garner in the various shows and movies I've seen her in and she comes across as pretty down to earth and fairly "normal" as Hollywood types go. I don't particularly like Berry's movies and she seems to have had a more troubled personal life, but I don't doubt she is legitimately worried about her daughter and wants to protect her.


Aug-19-13 11:21 AM

Short of wrapping a kid in bubble wrap and never letting him go outside, you can't make the world completely safe. One photograph of a kid in the newspaper isn't likely to put him in much danger, even from someone who means him harm, since there isn't much identifying information attached about parents, address, etc. Statistically, kids are in far more danger walking down the street or from people they already know -- parents, relatives, friends of the family. The children of celebrities are probably at heightened risk of kidnapping and from stalkers because the coverage is so much more intense and their parents are famous.


Aug-18-13 11:32 AM

We could do with far less of the celebrity coverage. Mainstream national media spends far too much reporting on stories about celebrities in rehab or divorces/breakups. I don't think it's newsworthy if Halle Berry's daughter walks to school with her father or Jennifer Garner's daughter has a ballet lesson, but photos of both events appear regularly in media outlets. But I also don't think they need to pass a new law to deal with it. The media needs to get back to reporting real news and the celebrity parents need to file charges against paparazzi for stalking their children.

As for the political bent of newspapers, it's more complicated than it might look at first glance at reporters and editors. To a large extent, media coverage and choice of stories is determined by whoever owns the newspaper.


Aug-18-13 12:23 AM

To use an innocuous example, how about the State Fair or the annual Easter Egg hunt at the zoo. You can't possibly get permission slips from the parents of dozens of kids in a background shot. aside from that, it's really the principle of the thing. freedom of the press should mean the freedom to photograph people in a public place, even if they're children. The paparazzi who stalk celebrity children probably ARE guilty of stalking/harassment under existing laws. I couldn't follow someone around 24/7 here without the cops being called, even if he is a public figure and newsworthy.


Aug-17-13 11:26 PM

Lefty, consider for a moment any situation in which the child is not a primary component of the story or photograph, but cannot be easily cropped out of the background. Moreover, consider a situation in which the child is part of a composite of people in their environment that creates the story told by the photograph. The latter may be a situation in which there could have been a natural disaster, an accident scene, or something as routine or a parade. The circumstances may prevent the photographer from identifying some or all individuals captured in the picture, but the picture may be considered very newsworthy. Clearly, the proposed law would have a chilling effect on news gathering. It would be akin to taking out a cockroach with a shotgun. As Andrea stated there may be a more appropriate legal means to deal with paparazzi who use extraordinary means to invade the privacy of celebrities. The surest way to stop the paparazzi is not to buy their work.


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