Intrusion of Privacy, Case Study Example

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Case Study

Abstract

In regard to the volatile issue of privacy intrusion of celebrities, the courts have consistently ruled that the “reasonable” expectation of privacy for public figures must be judged on a far different scale than that of the non-celebrity, private individual.  Simply put, it is assumed that such celebrities and public figures are choosing to place themselves in the public arena, and willingly do so to benefit from the media exposure.   Moreover, it makes little difference to the courts if the exposure is of a positive or negative nature; public celebrities are considered “fair game.”   This being the reality, most celebrities voluntarily waive privacy protections afforded to ordinary citizens, and for pragmatic reasons: “Such figures usually need, want, and solicit publicity to advance their careers” (Carper, McKinsey  306).  Then, if stories are negative, The celebrities assume that the majority of the public will view such scandal-driven stories as having little or no credibility.

At the same time, celebrities also consistently and vehemently object to privacy violations, particularly when they feel they are being unduly harassed, when tabloids are generating large profits for what are essentially thefts of image, and/or when these intrusions are outright libelous.

Such concerns are certainly valid, yet there remains the inescapable reality that, when such “intrusions” do not meet those parameters, celebrities must anticipate that they will be pursued in this fashion.  Celebrity privacy intrusion, ultimately, is and must be largely accepted as a cost of fame, as it typically is by the public, the courts, and celebrities themselves.

Background

Perhaps no case more embodies the issues of celebrity intrusion than the precedent-setting lawsuit filed by Jacqueline Onassis against photographer Ron Galella.  Through much of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Galella had taken pictures of Mrs. Onassis and her children, and sold them for substantial profit to tabloid newspapers.  Increasingly, Secret Service agents protecting the former First Lady, as well as Mrs. Onassis, determined that Galella’s actions constituted actual danger to herself and her children.  Restraining orders were filed, Galella ignored them, and he was arrested.   The issue culminated  in 1973’s landmark case of Galella v. Onassis, in which a federal court upheld a district court ruling that Galella observe certain distances between himself and the Onassis family.  Tellingly, the federal court ameliorated these restrictions, and the ordered, 100-yard “bubble zone” of the district court was eliminated.  Galella was barred only from actually intruding into the children’s schools or the home (Sadler  182).  The case is remarkable in several ways, in that it encompasses a figure beloved by the public, perceived harm as arising from the levels of intrusion, and the factor of young children being exploited for media gain.  Add to these components the date of the legal action, occurring long before media would take on its modern and far more pervasive presence, and the court’s disinclination to favor Mrs. Onassis’s interests is revealing.  Even then, and with the additional, highly sympathetic issues within it, it appears that judicial and public opinion weighed more on the side of the pursuit of celebrity as an inevitable consequence of the state of being.

Another precedent occurred a few years later which, more strictly concerned with libel, served the interests of celebrity protections.  It is one thing when a photographer hides in the landscaping of a celebrity’s home to obtain unauthorized photographs; it is another when the media presents a story injurious to the celebrity’s image, and one essentially fabricated.  Here, the courts are on firmer ground, and less reliant on subjective concepts of a celebrity surrendering of privacy.  This came to the fore in the now historic case of Carol Burnett suing the National Enquirer, which had run a story in 1976 alleging that Burnett, long a spokesperson against alcohol abuse, was intoxicated and belligerent in a Washington, D.C. restaurant.  That Burnett enjoyed great public favor may have swayed the verdict, but the decision of the court was that she had been clearly libeled, and the tabloid was ordered to pay $1.6 million in damages.  Interestingly, an appellate court reduced the award to $200,000 (Moore, Murray  390), perhaps acknowledging that even spurious intrusions of this nature are nonetheless a risk any celebrity willingly undertakes.  Burnett had indeed met the demands set by New York Times Co. v Sullivan, the 1964 case wherein the Supreme Court adjudicated that active malice must be established in order for libel to be ruled.  Nonetheless, the case was protracted, the damages greatly reduced, and it seems Burnett’s own celebrity status served as a disadvantage.  The justification of the suit notwithstanding, the concept of the celebrity as existing within the public domain wielded its influence.

In terms of actual statutes governing privacy rights, celebrities tend to receive no more protection than do ordinary citizens, a circumstance then exacerbated by the celebrity “lure” itself as enticing intrusion.  As noted, in fact, the courts are inclined to award them less because of the inherent intent motivating the attainment of celebrity status itself.  Protections are, however, in place, if not necessarily in regard to actual, perceived violations of privacy.  For instance, a photographer is free to take as many pictures as they can of a famous actor but, if those pictures are then used in a promotional or commercial capacity, other rights are violated and the actor has strong grounds to bring action (Krages  26).  Meanwhile, and uniformly, laws concerned with the issue both vary by state and are greatly subject to judicial interpretation.  In California, for example, taking photographs with telephoto lenses may be grounds for liable, but the act is by no means defined as such, because conduct that is deemed annoying, yet not endangering or threatening, is typically not actionable in the courts (Krages 33).  In the vast majority of cases involving celebrity privacy, judicial discretion, and not stature, determines the outcomes of the litigation.

Modern technology opportunities complicate the issue further, yet may serve to provide celebrities with legal protections more commonly accorded to the general public.  For example, Christopher Chaney pleaded guilty to nine felony counts stemming from his 2010-2011 hacking into various celebrity email accounts.  Chaney simply devised security passwords to the accounts of Mila Kunis, Scarlett Johansson, and others through distilling commonly available information about the celebrities, which then gave him access to further celebrity addresses.   His efforts also took on a “cyber paparazzi” aspect; posing as the celebrity victim, he requested photographs from other noted persons, which he exploited on the Internet (FBI).  It appears that the court in this case comprehended that certain levels of intrusion transcend celebrity implied waiver, and are irrefutably criminal in intent.

There is as well a new mode of privacy intrusion is known as “twiiterjacking,” in which celebrities are impersonated on Twitter and other social media.  Internet venues, in fact, create further vulnerabilities for celebrities, in that ambitions go beyond retrieving images and stories; today, the privacy intrusion may take on the form of “acquiring” the celebrity persona in this way.  This form of intrusion is typically not employed for profit, but to generate interest, and victims include Bill Gates, actors Tina Fey and Christopher Walken, and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.  The only celebrity to litigate, however, has been Tony La Russa, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.  Alleging that Twitter itself had violated his privacy in failing to provide protections, La Russa’s chief complaint was that the unidentified hackers were presenting his image in a destructive, vulgar manner.  Interestingly, before a judge ruled on the case, La Russa dropped the suit (Jung 383-384).  The rise and universality of social media has, ironically, generated in ordinary people concerns for their privacy not unlike those usually expressed by celebrities.  Equally ironic is that, as seemingly evidenced by the La Russa case, the very omnipresence of social media levels the entire arena of privacy issues; more exactly, if the businessman in Iowa is fearful of Facebook exploiting his personal information, the famous actor is just as vulnerable in the eyes of the law, and just as responsible for “putting himself out there.”

Argument

What tends to get lost in discussions and analyses of the privacy rights of celebrities, in fact, is mirrored by the social media instances discussed above.  Simply, as average people create for themselves variations of “celebrity,” or presentations of themselves for public consumption, the waiving of privacy expectations for actual celebrities is all the more reinforced.  As an ordinary individual may not reasonably claim, for example, that a comment made by them on Facebook has been stolen or pirated, so too is the celebrity denied rights governing their images and/or

utterances.  The only difference is of degree, and it is also irrefutable that the celebrity on some level seeks exposure, if only by virtue of the fact that the knowledge of the exposure is inevitable.

The case of Galella v Onassis may be turned to once more, for this early instance of the issue coming to the court’s attention may serve as a template for the majority of other such cases.  As noted, Mrs. Onassis was a highly public figure, a circumstance that, if she did not actively court it, was an inescapable consequence of choices she made.  Interestingly, Mrs. Onassis actually generated issues for herself that might have been forestalled.  It is likely that, as the president’s widow, she would have been accorded measures of journalistic respect, as well as governmental protections.  It may be argued that, in marrying the noted millionaire Aristotle Onassis, she was merely pursuing her life as an individual making choices.  Such a view, however, is ingenuous, and ignores Mrs. Onassis’s long experience with how celebrity renders privacy vulnerable.  It is perhaps harsh to assert that she deliberately encouraged intrusion, but it is equally naïve to claim that, as a famous woman generating additional fame, she had a legitimate right to expect that her privacy would be respected.

What is critical regarding the Onassis case, however, is that she essentially achieved a victory, and chiefly due to the extreme and invasive actions of Galella (Moore, Murray  551).  He intruded on her life in overt, physical ways, and this demanded a judicial response at least somewhat protective of Mrs. Onassis and her children, as occurred.  This translates to a reality still in place, then, and which draws necessary boundaries around intrusions that transcend public arenas.  Decades after the Onassis case, its essential ideology may be seen in a modern intrusion case.  Actor Jude Law filed suit against publisher Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper company for hacking into his private phone number, from 2003 to 2006.  Law was among 36 other celebrities making this claim and, in January of 2012, Murdoch settled with all plaintiffs, the sums being paid nearing one million dollars (Van Gilder Cooke).  The circumstances of the two cases are vastly different, yet a core principle is maintained, in that the courts recognize that certain forms of intrusion must not be sanctioned for any individual.  This may be viewed as a judicial determination of the passive versus the active: taking photographs, consent withheld or otherwise, does not constitute an invasion of privacy when the subject is within any public arena; conversely, physically imposing actions, and those intruding on access to personal information never presented in such an arena,  blatantly violate essential privacy rights.

Opinion regarding the Onassis verdict was divided, as the verdict itself was altered.  This points to yet another facet of the issue.  Unfortunately, and unfortunately for many celebrities, it would appear that the individual nature of the celebrity greatly influences public opinion on how valid their outrage against intrusions is.  As Mrs. Onassis generated sympathy through her persona, it is unlikely that a particularly aggressive celebrity, such as Madonna, will receive similar support.  Ultimately, however, the core issues remain largely the same, which goes to a consistent inability of the courts to truly define celebrity privacy rights.   Be the celebrity a notorious rap performer or the beloved and sedate Mrs. Onassis, underlying the subject always is that the nature of celebrity itself invites scrutiny, which easily translate to intrusion, or perceived intrusion.   Celebrity privacy intrusion, then, must be largely acknowledged as a cost of fame, as the public, the courts, and celebrities themselves usually perceive it to be.

Works Cited

Carper, Donald L., & McKinsey, John A.   Understanding the Law.  Belmont: Cengage Learning,  2011.  Print.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).  Florida Man Pleads Guilty to Computer Intrusion and Wiretapping Scheme Targeting Celebrities.  Los Angeles Division.  26 Mar., 2012.  Web. Retrieved from http://www.fbi.gov/losangeles/press-releases/2012/florida-man-pleads-guilty-to-computer-intrusion-and-wiretapping-scheme-targeting-celebrities

Jung, Andrew M.  “Twittering Away the Right of Publicity: Personality Rights and Celebrity  Impersonation on Social Networks.”  Chicago-Kent Law Review  86, 1 (2011):  381-417.  Web. Retrieved from http://www.cklawreview.com/wp-content/uploads/vol86no1/Jung.pdf

Krages, Bert.  Legal Handbook for Photographers:  The Rights and Liabilities of Making Images. Buffalo: Amherst Media, 2006.  Print.

Moore, Roy L., & Murray, Michael D.  Media Law and Ethics.  New York: CRC Press, 2007.  Print.

New York Times Co. v  Sullivan.  376 U.S. 254. Supreme Court of the United States.  1964.  Cornell University Law School.  Web.  23 June, 2012.

Sadler, Roger L.  Electronic Media Law. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2005. Print.

Van Gilder Cooke, Sonia.  “Jude Law, Other Celebrities Receive Settlements in Phone-Hacking Case.”  Time.  19 Jan., 2012.  Web.  Retrieved from http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/01/19/jude-law-other-celebrities-receive-settlements-in-phone-hacking-case/

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