Paparazzi Crackdown: Can California Protect the Tots of Tinseltown?

A new law is intended to protect celebrities' kids, but many think it can't keep the cameras at bay

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Sandra Bullock Trick or Treating with her child on October 31, 2013, in North Hollywood, Calif.
John Galt / Splash News / Corbis

Sandra Bullock trick-or-treating with her son Louis on Oct. 31, 2013, in North Hollywood, Calif.

On a recent fall day in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, a group of paparazzi waited eagerly outside a school Halloween party. When actress Sandra Bullock and her 3-year-old son Louis finally emerged dressed as skeletons, the photographers scrambled to get a good angle. “I ran across the street and shot her over a wall,” photographer Oscar Rapalo said. “It wasn’t easy. I only had 10 seconds.” It may soon get even harder.

While movie stars have long grumbled that photographers invade their privacy, it’s always open season on celebrities in Hollywood. But ambushing the children of the rich and famous is another matter. “There’s a scrum of photographers all fighting for a shot of a celebrity and their child,” says photographer Giles Harrison of London Entertainment Group. “Their compassion extends the length of a dollar bill. I can see how that can be distressful for a child.”

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So could California lawmakers. In September, after intense lobbying from actresses such as Halle Berry and Jennifer Garner, California passed legislation that will allow for civil action and increase fines and jail time for the “intentional harassment” of the child or ward of any person because of that person’s employment.

Starting Jan. 1, penalties will increase to a maximum of $10,000 in fines from $1,000, and up to one year in jail instead of six months. Harassment includes conduct that “seriously alarms, annoys, torments or terrorizes” the child and can include recording a child’s image or voice without express consent.

That kind of behavior is not so uncommon. Earlier this year, as she arrived at LAX, Berry nearly had an altercation with photographers chasing her family. “Halle Berry was holding her baby girl and they were jamming those cameras right up into her face, and she almost fell to the ground,” said California’s state senator Kevin de Leon, who sponsored the antipaparazzi legislation.

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Sylvia Diaz, who owns Cuvée restaurant on Robertson Boulevard, says she often sees such pestering at her establishment. When Kourtney Kardashian finishes dining with her son Mason, she can barely exit the restaurant because dozens of photographers block the doors, Diaz says. “I totally agree that a law should be in place,” she says. “Some of the paparazzi try to provoke the celebrities to get a reaction at any cost.”

Of course celebrities’ careers can benefit from paparazzi attention too, and the frenzied cycle will likely continue, with or without the new law. But de Leon says more punishment can help. “When a prosecutor has this tool in their toolbox and they decide to throw the book at one of these guys, it may change the way they do things,” he said.

The law has its fair share of critics. The California Broadcasters Association, for example, says that because the law’s language is vague, it could potentially lead to the prosecution of reporters covering a news story. “It could have a chilling effect,” says Joe Berry, chief operating officer for the association. “If they know there’s a chance they could be criminally charged for reporting the news, they will think twice about stepping up to get a comment or a photo.”

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Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California, Irvine, disagrees. He says the law doesn’t threaten freedom of speech because “it applies only to harassing behavior that is intentional, knowing and willful and directed at a specific child.”

For their part, the paparazzi doubt the law will work in the first place.

One afternoon near the end of October, half a dozen photographers readied their lenses across the street from a popular L.A. pumpkin patch. The shutterbugs knew that actors such as Jessica Alba, Mark Wahlberg and Goran Visnjic had recently been spotted with their kids at the venue, and they were hoping for more. Among them was Tuan Phan, who said he doesn’t expect the law to be effectively enforced.

Celebrities would need someone with them at all times to track the license plates and personal information of photographers in order to know whom to prosecute, Phan pointed out. And even then it would be tricky. “It’s very hard to prove in a court of law,” Phan said. “Who’s going to bring their kid into a court saying, ‘Yes, that guy harassed me and I can’t sleep at night’?”

Even some of the paparazzi’s subjects agree. Actor Dustin Hoffman says he’s “too old” to get the brunt of the attention like younger stars and their children. But while he agrees with the intent of the law, he doubts it will work. “How are you going to prove this person is harassing?” Hoffman said. “Sometimes when they sell a picture, the person they sell it to doesn’t tell who they got it from. So I think it’s tough.”

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