DOWNTOWN — An effort by city officials to find ways of regulating the paparazzi at a local celebrity-favorite nursery school could be hampered by the constitutional rights of photographers.
City Hall is now directing the focus to public safety measures that could improve an ongoing problematic situation at the First Presbyterian Nursery School on Second Street where swarms of photographers have been known to hound entrances and adjacent alleyways, all to catch shots of the famous picking up and dropping off their children.
The City Council in June directed its staff to investigate the “intrusive and invasive activities” of paparazzi photographers and videographers in areas where children might gather, returning with recommended regulations to protect their privacy. The issue came to light after parents — both celebrities and noncelebrities — contacted council members about the chaotic scene that often unfolds when photographers are present, complaining that they block sidewalks and stand on cars.
Assistant City Manager Jennifer Phillips said that she’s been working with the City Attorney’s Office but is finding that regulations could conflict with First Amendment protections. The fact that the photographers are on public property further complicates the enforcement of possible restrictions.
Phillips is preparing an update report that will be available in the next few weeks.
Deputy Chief of Police Phillip Sanchez said a combination of measures could be adopted, including restricting the alley to the west of the school to one-way traffic and adding a stop sign, changing the wrought iron entrance gate to a solid door to better ensure privacy, and installing a video camera system.
“The Santa Monica Police Department is very sensitive to those issues of the First Amendment and we recognize folks can legally occupy and use public spaces,” Sanchez said.
The department has responded to about a dozen calls over the presence of the paparazzi, though no citations were ever issued. Police officers have also stepped up patrol of the area.
He said police could enforce trespassing laws if the photographers were to climb onto cars that belong to other people or for disturbing the peace.
Mary Hartzell, the director of the nursery school, said the problem was not as intense during the summer when classes were not in session. The school operates a small summer camp.
She added that the celebrity family who has been drawing the most attention is currently in another city but is expected to return in November along with the photographers.
Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck have been photographed picking up their daughter Violet, as has Meg Ryan.
“It seems as though the paparazzi know where the people are and they aren’t going to come here if the (celebrities) they are seeking are not here,” she said.
The solution could come from an understanding of what can be an unbearable situation.
Sean Burke, the founder of the Paparazzi Reform Initiative, said he believes the general public will eventually learn about the intrusiveness and dangers of the paparazzi and start demanding changes, starting a chain reaction that will lead to elected officials strengthening privacy laws.
He said the purpose of the initiative is to educate the public about how “crazy” the paparazzi are and to rally support for reform. Burke previously spent eight years as the head of security for a celebrity whom he declined to identify.
“I don’t think anyone really gets this except security and the celebrities who know how crazy it gets on the street,” he said.
Burke said the recent passage of an assembly bill by Speaker Karen Bass, D-Culver City, expanding privacy laws to penalize persons who purchase, publish and print images of individuals which they knew were illegally obtained, is a step in the right direction.
“There’s no way we want to restrict the First Amendment but there is a difference between a newsworthy and non-newsworthy item,” Burke said. “The way it’s going now, newsworthy includes everything from walking out of the door to pick up your newspaper to the latest mass murder.
“That is the spectrum and it shouldn’t be. Someone shopping and buying a banana isn’t newsworthy.”