June 25, 2008

Malibu to address paparazzi brawl

The violence between paparazzi and Malibu residents that broke out in two incidents during the past weekend, and then became international news when videos were posted on the Internet and broadcast in the mainstream media, has resulted in a press conference being called for Wednesday this week at City Hall at 5 p.m. City councilmember Jefferson Wagner said that possibly Kenneth Starr, dean of Pepperdine University School of Law, will attend and speak about the city's efforts to curb the infringement of personal and private property rights. The city had asked Starr and other legal experts in May to help draft a new ordinance that would restrict the harassment of local residents by paparazzi.

Criminal complaints have also been filed from both camps in the altercations, said Detective Sgt. James Royal of the Lost Hills/Malibu Sheriff's Station.

"[There are] allegations and counter allegations," Royal said, adding that Sheriff's detectives are interviewing witnesses and victims, as well as viewing videos of the incidents.

The first fracas took place on Saturday at about 2 p.m. when a group of residents and local surfers confronted a group of about 12 paparazzi at what is known as Little Dume Beach. Armed with video and still cameras with telephoto lenses, the celebrity photographers were attempting to capture images of actor Matthew McConaughey, who was surfing at Little Dume.

Eyewitnesses say a group of about 15 young men and some women walked south along the beach to confront the paparazzi. The photographers redirected their cameras from McConaughey to the approaching group. The men and women told the paparazzi that they were not welcome and insisted they leave. The paparazzi refused to leave and the confrontation escalated into taunting, foul language, physical threats and ultimately physical violence, as the videos posted online show.

The online videos also show several of the surfers holding what appear to be cans and/or bottles of beer.

One beachgoer who witnessed the altercation, but did not want to be identified, explained the local resident side of the confrontation: "The paparazzi were there to shoot and harass Matthew McConaughey, who just wanted to go surfing and chill out with his pregnant girlfriend on the beach. He has to ignore them because if he confronts them, they just egg him on and try to blow up the situation and make him look dumb, like they did with Steve Guttenberg while he was jogging. The paparazzi heckle people so they can't have a life and it's not fair. It's not fair to be on your own in your backyard and want to be hanging out with your friends. We told them to leave, and they didn't leave and it blew up from there."

At one point, one of the paparazzi allegedly pulled a knife and threatened the group of residents, inspiring a full-scale brawl between the residents and paparazzi. Video of this incident shows two surfers chasing a paparazzo down to the water's edge, and it appears that a video camera went into the water. After the initial altercation ended, the paparazzi were again asked to leave. The violence escalated again when a paparazzi and one of the surfers exchanged blows - the surfer using his hand, the paparazzi using a metal tripod. Several of the paparazzi recorded these fights with video cameras, and within a couple of hours, edited video appeared on the www.tmz.com and http://x17online.com/ Web sites.

Neither of two videos posted online shows the entire confrontation, but one of the individuals involved claimed that a paparazzi video camera was thrown in the water, one suffered a broken nose, and that several of the residents received moderate injuries.

On Sunday, the paparazzi returned to Malibu, this time with what witnesses described as a "security force" of "martial arts bad asses." The paparazzi boldly walked up the beach, daring anyone to confront them, witnesses said. A security guard from a local homeowner's group was sent to the beach in anticipation of trouble. The paparazzi photographed and recorded from the beach and bluff side, and were told to leave several times by the guard. The video from this Sunday incident also was shown on TMZ and elsewhere. The video shows the paparazzi walking south down the beach, trading insults with beachgoers at a spot close to Paradise Cove called The Hut. At some point, another fight broke out at the water's edge.

According to various witnesses, one of the paparazzi kicked one of the residents in the head, and another was backed down to the beach by a girlfriend of one of the residents. One of the video clips shows a paparazzi shaking water out of an expensive video camera, and the Los Angeles Times reported that $13,000 worth of cameras were destroyed.

According to the local residents, the local Sheriff's station was alerted to this incident as it was developing. The paparazzi, as seen on one of the videos, called to file a report. In the video, two people are shown being driven away in a Sheriff's car. However, L.A. County Sheriff spokesman Steve Whitmore said "There were no arrests. Those two people in the back of the Sheriff's vehicle were alleged victims who were giving their reports."

City Councilmember Jefferson Wagner, who is also a local surfer and has known some of the surfers seen in the videos since they were toddlers, said of the incidents, "It's a pretty sad event, that [something like this] comes to fist cuffs and physical violence, involving free speech [on behalf of the paparazzi] and property rights [of local residents.]"

Wagner has received dozens of e-mails, many critical of the locals involved. One person asked, "Are the beaches in Malibu safe? I see all these drunken surfers and fights on TV."

Wagner responded, "Be aware that the video of this fracas was edited before being displayed on the Internet. The video editor's intention was to sway the viewers into believing that there was an unruly beach gang. I know many of the individuals in the footage and they do not resort to violence."

Legislation in the works

Regarding the effort to draft legislation to protect Malibu residents, Wagner said the idea of instituting some sort of business licensing requirement for paparazzi to photograph in Malibu has been discussed.

"The paparazzi sell photos, that is commerce," he said. "What they are doing is commerce on the beach."

State law requires that anyone photographing for commercial purposes on state or public land, whether for compensation or not, must file for a permit, as well as provide a certificate of insurance. However, "breaking news" coverage is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and does not require a permit.

Wagner suggested if legislation is rephrased so that paparazzi are required to file for a permit to shoot, then they "will all line up ... [and] at least we'll know who they are, so we will have legal recourse if they violate laws."

Monday morning Malibu Mayor Pamela Conley-Ulich issued an official press release on the subject: "Any new ordinance must be in harmony with the First Amendment free speech rights, which are so important. I am hopeful we can develop and implement an effective strategy that will address outstanding public safety concerns and balance those concerns against protected First Amendment activities and commercial activities."

Meanwhile, residents are dismayed and frustrated by the weekend's events.

Heather Gardner, a teacher at Malibu High School, was at the beach on Saturday and witnessed the altercations from a distance. She said she was dealing with a paparazzo intrusion of her own when a female photographer had invaded her and a friend's beach space while attempting to take photos of McConaughey's pregnant girlfriend Camila Alves.

"This never has happened," Gardner said. "I go all time to the beach. This is the first time I've really seen massive paparazzi ... because Matthew McConaughey started surfing closer to here."

Sgt. Royal confirmed the rarity of the incidents: "[It was] very unusual ... the way events unfolded."

Gardner added, "They have no respect for common people or the people they're taking photos of. They just want the $50,000 for photos ..."

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