Hawaii, no longer content to trample on the Fourteenth Amendment alone, is about to bid a sorry aloha (farewell) to the First Amendment. In a brazen giveaway to celebrities who like to like to vacation on its pristine beaches, Hawaii’s Senate is poised to pass the “Steven Tyler Act.”
The bill, named after – indeed, written by – the Aerosmith frontman, could punish anyone who takes a photograph of a celebrity in public. That includes a tourist who takes out her iPhone to snap a pic of an aging rocker, or perhaps the Obama family. Specifically, the bill would prohibit recording someone “in a manner that is offensive to a reasonable person,” while that person is “engaging in a personal or familial activity.” The Steven Tyler Act not only departs from a century’s worth of privacy laws, but does so at a huge cost to the First Amendment’s guarantee of the freedom of speech. As my frequent co-author, law professor Josh Blackman explains, there are several constitutional defects here:
First, the bill offers no exceptions for newsworthy content. It simply assumes that if a person is “engaging in a personal or familial activity with a reasonable expectation of privacy,” any photograph would be illegal. Newspapers covering matters of public affairs (that may be personal or familial) could be snared by this staute.
Second, the proposed statute is purposely vague. It offers no guidance of what “personal or familiar activity” means.
Third, courts would have the authority not only to stop the initial publication of a photograph, but allows for restraining orders for future, subsequent reproductions of the same photograph. This type of authority is called “prior restraint” – highly suspect in First Amendment jurisprudence – with nary a compelling government interest at stake.
Fourth, the penalties are severe, and include compensatory damages, treble punitive damages, and disgorgement of profits. Such penalties on a vague statute would easily chill speech far beyond the worst kind of paparazzi any celebrity can imagine.
Fifth, this standard applies not only to the person who takes the photograph, but potentially to anyone who uses the photographs in any capacity. The only existing publication-related laws even approaching such a strict liability standard involve child pornography. As Josh notes based on one of his law review articles, many of these constitutional defects could be fixed by adding a newsworthiness exception to the law and limiting the scope and nature of damages that can be awarded. These tweaks would bring the law more in line with existing privacy law, while still respecting the Constitution. Protecting privacy in public is a laudable goal that in our constitutional jurisprudence dates back at least to the seminal article “The Right to Privacy” by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis. Indeed, we’re all affected by the sweet emotion of seeing celebrities harassed by the paparazzi (viz., Princess Diana). The Steven Tyler Act, however, misses a very important thing – that privacy and the First Amendment can coexist.
Hawaii shouldn’t walk this way, instead promoting the right of privacy that our society should strive for while ensuring the freedom of speech. Let’s not be jaded by the costs of freedom. Anything else is just crazy.