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A brake on the paparazzi

October 15, 2005|Jeffrey Scott Shapiro

UNDER A NEW California law, victims of assaults by paparazzi can ask for punitive damages and a court order stripping the photographer of any proceeds from pictures taken during the assault.

For ordinary people, it's no doubt difficult to imagine that anyone would risk the life of another human being to get a picture or story, but I'm sorry to tell you, such rituals are common for tabloid journalists.

I know because I used to be one. When I was 23 years old, I was enlisted as the lead investigator on the JonBenet Ramsey case for the Globe tabloid. My job was to dig up dirt to help my editors write about the alleged involvement of John Ramsey in the sexual molestation and murder of his daughter.

Week after week, I sent my editors reports based on my conversations with law enforcement sources in Boulder, Colo., that indicated John Ramsey was not the lead suspect. Nonetheless, the Globe continued to push for stories in that direction. I quickly realized that by paying so-called sources and experts to accept attribution for fabricated quotes and headlines, the tabloid empire had the power to accuse anyone of anything, anytime.

When sources ran dry, I remember people talked about "creating" a story by reporting false information (anonymously, of course) to the police. This way, they could misdirect the investigation in directions that suited their editorial needs.

When they wanted to publish a story reporting that the police were investigating a particular lead, for instance, they phoned it in. And when the police showed up to investigate these leads, paparazzi often would be waiting in their cars to photograph them, shielded behind dark, tinted glass.

In some instances, I remember discussions about different strategies on how to bribe members of law enforcement. Attempts to procure police reports, evidence and even commission members of law enforcement as sources were not uncommon. On one occasion, the Globe bought and published crime scene photographs leaked from the Boulder County coroner's office. The tabloid returned those photos and others it had not published. Boulder County then dropped a lawsuit to block publication of any more of the pictures.

After two years of working as a Globe reporter, I reported my editors to the FBI for conspiring to blackmail a police detective for sealed grand jury evidence. One year later, after quitting, I testified about this incident and other tabloid tactics before a Colorado grand jury.

Although I witnessed high-speed chases and paparazzi assaults that placed people in physical danger, I learned that such practices are only one dimension of the criminal tactics that tabloids engage in.

Opponents of the current California legislation included members of the mainstream media who feared that such a law would chill freedom of speech. But this is not merely a 1st Amendment issue. It is a safety issue.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Virginia vs. Black that every human being has a right to live their life free from fear and intimidation. Although the case was designed to target cross burnings, the same 1st Amendment principle is applicable to the assault- and intimidation-style tactics of the paparazzi. When a person is harassed and stalked on the street, it is intimidating. When he or she is pursued relentlessly in a moving vehicle at unsafe speeds, it is dangerous.

As Americans, we have a constitutional right to free speech. But that precious gift should not be abused as a shield for criminal conduct or for the exploitation of innocent people.

JEFFREY SCOTT SHAPIRO is a freelance investigative reporter and a former reporter for the Globe tabloid. He can be reached at jshapiro@ufl.edu.

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