While walking (or for most people, driving) through the urban jungle of Los Angeles, it’s not unusual to see a swarm of ravenous, camera-wielding hyenas (a/k/a the paparazzi) stalking their prey (a/k/a a celebrity) outside of a restaurant or shop. Or you might see several cars speeding and swerving down a street in an attempt to capture that money shot of a big-time star gracefully traversing the streets. While I’m not one to judge (I tend to get excited when I see a celebrity in the flesh), the packs of paps seem to be a threat to both the celebrity’s and the public’s safety.

Today’s world tends to be driven by our thirst for all things celebrity, thus inviting the paparazzi to go to great lengths to snap photographs of our favorite (or not-so-favorite) stars to sell to tabloids and other publications. A photograph of a celebrity can be extremely lucrative for a paparazzo. So lucrative, in fact, that capturing the perfect photograph is worth (at least to the paparazzi) endangering the lives of the celebrity and possibly others (the other innocent bystanders may disagree about this valuation). Overly aggressive paparazzi often create risky and hazardous situations, especially when they get behind the wheel.

The California Assembly has recently taken measures to crack down on this intrusive and reckless conduct. On the thirteenth anniversary of Princess Diana’s tragic death (a product of being chased by overzealous paparazzi), the California Assembly approved a bill — AB 2479 — that will impose heightened fines and penalties on paparazzi who pursue celebrities along public streets and highways or surround celebrities so that they have no possible means of escape.

The bill provides that a person who engages in reckless driving with the intent to capture a photo of another person is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment of up to six months and by a fine up to $2,500 (just plain ol’ camera-less reckless driving, evidently still OK). A person can be subject to a year in prison and a fine of $5,000 if such reckless driving endangers a child. The bill further provides that a person who commits false imprisonment with the intent to capture a photo is liable for the same general, special, and punitive damages as is a person who commits the tort of invasion of privacy.

The Senate Judiciary Committee recognized, “This bill invokes one of the most complex areas of constitutional law: the balance between an individual’s right to privacy, and the First Amendment’s protection of truthful publications of matters of public concern.” So who should win — the paparazzi or the celebrity? On one hand, we have the celebrity who wants to preserve a sense of privacy with respect to his or her “private affairs” (even if said “private affairs” are sometimes carried out in rather public settings). On the other hand, we have the crazed photog who wants to capture a celebrity photograph that will earn him the big bucks — err, that is, “serve the public’s interest in the unyielding search for ‘truth’” (which can apparently be found by following a celebrity to Pinkberry). According to the California Legislature, the celebrity wins. But what does the constitution have to say about it?

Under the First Amendment, journalists and reporters are permitted to engage in routine reporting and newsgathering techniques and to publish truthful, newsworthy information without being subject to civil liability. Nonetheless, these journalists and reporters are not given free reign to violate generally applicable laws in pursuit of newsworthy material. To the extent that the new anti-paparazzi law simply applies harsher, context-dependent penalties for conduct that was illegal all along (no, I was not serious about plain ol’ camera-less reckless driving still being OK), it probably doesn’t run afoul of the First Amendment.

Of course, a new bill is usually met with a strong opposition, and the First Amendment rightly has some very staunch and principled defenders. The California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA) claims that the bill will have a chilling impact on mainstream media and unfairly singles out journalists and reporters for harsher penalties. The CNPA explains that it has no issue with the underlying reckless driving laws and penalties, as those laws are of general application. Rather, the CNPA is concerned that the bill’s harsh criminal penalties for reckless driving will hamper journalists and reporters who must quickly drive to the scene of an emergency or to capture breaking news.

Despite this opposition and the potential First Amendment implications, the California Assembly approved the bill. We are now waiting for the bill to be signed by Governor Schwarzenegger, a man who is quite familiar with the perils associated with aggressive paparazzi (and who has already signed one controversial anti-paparazzi bill into law). I bet the Governator would love nothing more than to say, “Hasta la vista, paparazzi.”