How Paparazzi Work

  Prev Next  

The Laws of Photography

Princess Diana’s fatal car wreck spurred legal limitations for paparazzi.
Princess Diana’s fatal car wreck spurred legal limitations for paparazzi.
Christ Jackson/Getty Images

Princess Diana’s 1997 fatal car crash during a high-speed paparazzi chase instigated a string of photography-related legislation. Consequently, any photographer who pursues Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (formerly known as Kate Middleton), in the same manner risks litigation in the event of an accident [source: Harman]. In fact, by the time she wed Prince William, the Duchess of Cambridge had already won settlements in court for paparazzi privacy breaches [source: Harman].

In California, paparazzi are legally prohibited from trespassing on private property, using telephoto lenses to survey private property or pursuing targets in cars [source: LaPorte]. However, the frequency of paparazzi-celebrity run-ins since January 2010, when the law was last amended, have indicated that the legislation’s bark might tougher than its bite.

Laws regarding public photography have always been a gray area. In the United States, photographs that are taken for editorial use in a public place generally enjoy Constitutional protection under the right of free speech. There are exceptions, however. Here are just a few of the gray areas:

  • Police crime scenes, disasters, fires or riots are considered secured emergency areas. Photography isn’t legal in these situations without permission.
  • Even editorial photographs can come under scrutiny when a caption is added. If photo captions imply something false or libelous about the person in the photo, then they aren't legally protected free speech.
  • Photos of a person in a public place can’t be used to promote any goods or services without permission.

The controversy surrounding anti-paparazzi legislation comes down to the question of where to draw the line between legitimate news gathering and invasions of privacy. If laws are left as they are, a celebrity's privacy -- and, in some cases, his or her life -- may continue to be endangered by the ruthlessness of some photographers [source: LaPorte]. On the other hand, if the laws become too restrictive, then the freedom of the press could be jeopardized, and for that reason, a judicial tension remains between the two.

With the cultural appetite for celebrity voyeurism, it’s questionable whether the public is even concerned about anti-paparazzi legislation. As long as images of the rich and famous committing foibles both minor and monstrous continue to arrest our attention -- and sway our online traffic and magazine purchases -- the paparazzi mobs will continue to swarm and snap. After all, they’re only giving us what we want: proof that celebrities are imperfect, just like us.