It's both tragic and troubling that a photographer was hit and killed by an SUV as he crossed Sepulveda Boulevard early Tuesday evening after trying to get shots of Justin Bieber's Ferrari, which had been pulled over by the California Highway Patrol. As it turns out, the teenage pop star wasn't even in the car.
Recklessness has become a hallmark of the paparazzi who relentlessly pursue celebrities through the streets and freeways of Los Angeles, day and night, to snap photos or shoot video. And why wouldn't they take risks? Their work fetches exorbitant prices and supplies a seemingly insatiable demand for images of the famous, the more candid, invasive or embarrassing the better.
As photographers have gotten more aggressive, celebrities and politicians have gotten louder in decrying the tactics that have triggered, over the years, angry confrontations, minor car crashes and fatal ones — from the accident that killed Diana, the Princess of Wales, in 1997 to the one that left the young photographer dead on New Year's Day. Public concern is only heightened when bystanders get caught up in these scenes — such as the driver of the SUV who hit the jaywalking photographer. (The driver is not expected to be charged.)
Lawmakers have tried to enact restrictions on photographers, most recently in 2010 when the California Legislature passed a law increasing penalties on photographers who chase their subjects in a dangerous manner while shooting for commercial gain. And it's not surprising that this latest incident brought a fresh round of calls for more laws to curb paparazzi. But the only time the 2010 law has been used against a photographer — chasing Bieber, as it happens — the charges were dismissed by a Superior Court judge who said that the statute was overly broad and violated the 1st Amendment rights of all kinds of photographers, including those shooting weddings, those covering political rallies and paparazzi. The city attorney's office is appealing that decision, which could lead to the law being overturned.
As unsavory as the paparazzi may be, it's fairly difficult to craft a law aimed at reining them in that doesn't clash with the rights of a free press as laid out in the U.S. Constitution. The best way to cope with this issue is not by passing new laws that target photojournalists but by more aggressively enforcing existing laws against driving too close, speeding, trespassing — and jaywalking. Judge Thomas Rubinson, who ruled that the 2010 law was too broad, suggested that lawmakers could have just increased the penalties for reckless driving. There's an idea that might chasten all risk-taking drivers.