ambulancechase.jpgAfter the taxpayers of Los Angeles shelled out $25,000 in expenses to protect the public and a young celebrity during her recent trip to a hospital, L.A. Councilman Dennis Zine proposed a new “buffer zone” law that will effect the most rabid of paparazzi — namely those who gather in large swarms, blazing flashbulbs within inches of their target — going so far as to stand in front of vehicles, or engaging in dangerous road chases, all for the sake of a celebrity snapshot.

While California does have some paparazzi laws in place, photographers are rarely cited and when they are the charges are usually misdemeanor, rather than criminal, offenses. Zine’s proposal, at this juncture, looks like it would criminalize the ambush tactics used by paparazzi who fail to keep a reasonable distance from their target, or who engage in dangerous chases.

I believe that stronger laws are necessary and overdue. After Princess Diana’s death, the public was treated to a few moments of a tabloid-driven media that seemed to be examining its conscience. Unfortunately, those moments quickly faded. Since then, celebrities such as James Brolin and Barbra Streisand, Pierce Brosnan, and Lindsay Lohan have all had close calls with aggressive entertainment photographers, who have either run them off the road or struck their cars during a chase. It should not take another death, celebrity or passerby, for lawmakers, news outlets, and the public to recognize the danger.

It’s also a matter of respect. While the worst aggressors will lean on the 1st amendment to claim encroachment rights on another’s personal space, there is no constitutional or other legal right whatsoever to harass another person, or restrict their movements, or impede their activities — all of which the paparazzi has done, and continues to do, almost without restriction.

As I wrote last year, being a public figure of any sort should not negate someone’s right to privacy or freedom of movement. Several posters disagreed with me, basically using the argument that celebrities are different: that being ambushed is part of the career they’ve chosen.

I don’t know how that logic works. As far as I know, celebrities are not locked into a 24- hour contract with the public to entertain or be accessible. A successful career in any field, including entertainment, should not make someone a virtual hostage to the whims of the public, or negate their rights as a private individual.

As for the media’s defense that excessive intrusiveness exists because the public demands it — that we “create the need” for aggressive, car-chasing, garbage stealing paparazzi — I can only say it’s an elaborate lie.

First, the public cannot want something it doesn’t even know exists. Most of us don’t know, until the media tells us, what a celebrity’s personal life is like, where they’re dining, who they’re dating, or what tattoos they have on their backside. We don’t know – and most likely would never wonder – what is in a public figure’s garbage can, or how many Jack & Cokes they had at the Viper Room.

The type of microscopic scrutiny and bold intrusions into celebrity lives offered up by gossip outlets and their photographers are less a consequence of public demand than public manipulation. Sensationalism sells, but only because it is produced and promoted. If tomorrow, there were no more photographs of panty-less starlets falling on the red carpet, or close-ups of celebrity cellulite, the public would be none the wiser, and none the less interested in whatever other, less invasive, celebrity news came their way.

It is not the public that demands crotch shots and minute-by-minute coverage of celebrity breakdowns. It’s the media that sets that bar, seeking the most sensational story in the hopes of inflaming or piquing the worst of the public’s curiosity. And unfortunately, it’s that bottom line which informs many tabloid decisions.

Lastly, even if the public had an expressed curiosity in sensationalism — even if they were writing letters by the tens of thousands demanding upskirt shots and ambulance chases — it does not mean that the media should abandon common sense and ethics to cater to the basest tastes. That they do so daily, with or without “public demand,” necessitates the need for stronger, more enforceable laws.