WHETHER THEY woke up to the New Year with their spouses, their secret lovers or their dogs, Hollywood celebrities could take comfort yesterday in the introduction of a controversial new California law, giving them greater leeway to prosecute paparazzi snooping on their private moments.
The law, sponsored by the Screen Actors' Guild in response to the controversy surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, beefs up the state's restrictions on invasion of privacy and makes anyone who trespasses on private property "with the intent to capture any type of visual image, sound recording or other physical impression of the plaintiff" liable to three times the normal level of damages.
Several leading film actors, including Arnold Schwarzenegger and George Clooney, had complained of serious harassment by press photographers and television crews and pushed hard for new legislation. Their cause was eventually taken up by the Democratic Party leader in the state Senate, John Burton, after lobbying by state legislators with close ties to the Hollywood establishment.
How effective the new law can be remains to be seen, as its provisions are already covered by other laws on privacy. Even the law's proponents admit it is discreetly worded to avoid clashing with freedom of speech rights guaranteed by the US Constitution.
"It's very narrow," the president of the Screen Actors Guild, Richard Masur, said when the measure came before a senate committee over the summer. "We're trying to say, `Stay out of people's most private moments and out of their private property'." News organisations and civil liberties advocates, however, are concerned it will restrict journalists' freedom without significantly guarding against abuses. And it might provide an already powerful Hollywood PR machine with another means to control the content of newspaper and magazine articles.
"Cloaked in concerns about `stalking' and invasion of privacy, the proposed Bill is actually an unnecessary legislative intrusion into the First Amendment rights of a free press," the Sacramento Bee newspaper wrote. "Much of what it purports to limit is already illegal or subject to lawsuits charging abuse; the new law is simply a blunt instrument with which legitimate photographers will be beaten along with less scrupulous paparazzi."
After the high-speed chase and car crash that killed Diana in Paris 16 months ago, several leading actors recounted how they had also come close to serious injury in showdowns with paparazzi. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he was run off the road with his wife and two children. Alec Baldwin punched a photographer on the basis that harassment had almost caused his wife, Kim Basinger, to drop their baby.
Several prominent Californian politicians, including the one-time student radical Tom Hayden, soon joined in the campaign for tougher laws. "Anything that attacks the paparazzi is good for democracy," Mr Hayden said. Several early attempts to put an anti- paparazzi law on the books foundered because of First Amendment problems.
The law that came into effect at midnight yesterday was heavily vetted by constitutional experts and fell far short of early calls for photographers to keep a requisite distance from their subjects on the street.
Stars have been resorting to other laws to protect their privacy. Last month, a news photographer was arrested in Los Angeles, accused of tapping calls between Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman and trying to sell the material to tabloid papers.
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