7:52 PM EST, January 3, 2013
Words I never thought I'd say: Justin Bieber has a point.
The pop star this week called on lawmakers to crack down on thuggish paparazzi behavior after a photographer was killed in a traffic accident while stalking Bieber's Ferrari in West Los Angeles. Bieber wasn't behind the wheel at the time.
"Hopefully this tragedy will finally inspire meaningful legislation and whatever other necessary steps to protect the lives and safety of celebrities, police officers, innocent public bystanders and the photographers themselves," he said in a statement.
Past attempts to regulate paparazzi practices have run into the free-speech roadblock that is the 1st Amendment. And I get that.
As a media guy myself, I unequivocally support the press' right to pursue information and share it with the public.
But that's where things also get a little squirrelly. Amid today's hopped-up, heavy-breathing social-media circus, the media's — and particularly the tabloid media's — right to free speech coexists uncomfortably with an individual's right to privacy.
In the instant-gratification age of Facebook and Twitter, is there a line that the right to free speech shouldn't cross, or should at least tip-toe across when it does? Bieber is saying yes, and I'm inclined to agree.
Is a Bieber, or a Beyonce, or a Lindsay fair game for the media? Absolutely, especially in the context of public appearances that fuel their celebrity.
But are they entitled to certain boundaries when it comes to their private lives? By the same token, aren't we all entitled to some discretion when it comes to the reams of personal information that, as it currently stands, have been digitized, commodified and made available to the highest bidder?
Consider the recent case of the Journal News, a New York newspaper that created an interactive map providing the names and addresses of local handgun permit holders.
That's public information, but in the past there was no way to serve it up in such an easy and accessible fashion. The difficulty of getting it acted as a barrier to riding roughshod over the privacy rights of lawful gun owners.
Personally, I see value in such a database. I wouldn't mind knowing which neighbors were armed. But if I were a gun owner, I'd probably feel as if this wasn't anyone else's business.
If I were an alcoholic, I'd probably feel that this condition wasn't anyone else's business either, even though a drinking problem could theoretically pose a danger to others.
The Journal News correctly cited its free-speech right to out gun owners. But this is perhaps yet another case of technology overtaking existing regulation.
Is it any wonder so-called data aggregators have built a multibillion-dollar business out of selling your personal information to marketers, employers and others? The facts and figures of our lives have become low-hanging fruit for purveyors of digital dossiers.
They have a free-speech right to do what they do. But, again, you have to wonder if there should be boundaries.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. made the most famous case for such limits when he wrote in 1919: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic."
"The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent," he said.
To me, this says that we can't hide behind our right to free speech if our actions endanger others. Aggressively chasing after celebrities would seem to fit the bill.
Publicizing and profiting from people's personal information without their approval also would seem to mark a line in the sand. There are a number of websites that, through their sheer thoroughness of publicly available data, would seem a stalker's or predator's best friend.
A veteran paparazzo, Frank Griffin, told my colleagues Richard Winton and Andrew Blankstein this week that photographers who hound celebrities like Bieber are heroes.
"What's the difference between our guy who got killed under those circumstances and the war photographer who steps on a land mine in Afghanistan and blows himself to pieces because he wanted the photograph on the other side of road?" Griffin said.
"The only difference is the subject matter. One is a celebrity and the other is a battle. Both young men have left behind mothers and fathers grieving, and there's no greater sadness in this world than parents who have to bury their children."
Um, no. One is fearlessly putting himself in harm's way to perform a public service and document a bona-fide news story. The other is a parasite whose sole motive is personal enrichment.
An L.A. County Superior Court judge last year threw out charges related to a state anti-paparazzi law in a case involving Bieber being chased by a photographer on the 101 Freeway. The law established penalties for paparazzi who drive dangerously to obtain their shots.
Judge Thomas Robinson said this didn't square with the 1st Amendment, and that's probably true. But what about a person's — any person's — right to be shielded from reckless behavior? What about the simple decency of being able to drive home without some money-grubbing lunatic trying to run you off the road?
Don't get me wrong: The 1st Amendment is a cornerstone of American democracy. You don't mess with it lightly.
But thanks to the Internet, it could be argued that everyone's a celebrity these days, that everyone's lives are up for grabs.
At some point, don't we need to say: "Enough is enough"?
David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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