Part of the legacy of 2021 was both celebrity well-being and celebrity privacy being thrust into the spotlight. As we followed the successful evolution of the #FreeBritney movement, and watched the Britney documentaries built on the foundation of violating confidential communications, we couldn’t avoid thinking about these critical privacy issues.
This was also amplified on Monday when a jury awarded Cardi B $1.2 million, increased to $3.8 million on Tuesday, in a libel suit against a YouTuber, who made malicious and false claims about her.
The first thing to understand is that there is no federal privacy law in the United States, as these privacy laws are state matters. California has logically taken the lead in trying to protect the privacy of celebrities, with the nation’s first anti-paparazzi law.
Celebrity privacy has long been about the dynamic tension between celebrities and paparazzi. They need each other in very fundamental ways but the relationship can see the parties quickly turn on each other. For the celebrity, giving paparazzi what they saw as controlled access to parts of their life helped in very tangible ways to continue to build their celebrity. But then when celebrities would pull back and want more privacy, it made sense that the paparazzi needed their regular contact and were upset when they couldn’t have it.
Dating back to the most famous paparazzo, Ronald Galella, courts in the United States have drawn a line to attempt to protect celebrities from those who seek to profit from invading their privacy. In Galella v. Onassis, paparazzo were referred to as “literally a kind of annoying insect,” by the federal circuit court. This was a very simple case by today’s standards, involving one photographer violating provisions of a court order in how he photographed the late President Kennedy’s wife and daughter.
Part of the problem with this line of celebrity privacy is that it hasn’t moved as well with the times as we hoped it would have. Celebrity privacy today has gone far beyond simply pest-like photographers snapping unwanted pictures to far deeper invasions of privacy fueled by the new media, such as Netflix and 24/7 internet celebrity “news” sites through which we consume content.
The other big issue we face today is that our collective appetite for celebrity content has expanded so dramatically, as has the definition itself of a celebrity. The new genre of streaming series such as Alex Gibney’s Dirty Money, through to the two recent Britney Spears documentaries, our appetite for investigative content involving traditional types of celebrities as well as those who became meme-worthy (such as Gibney’s superb episodes on imprisoned payday loan shark Scott Tucker and pharma-felon, Martin Shkreli) create an endless loop of celebrity content demand driving the need for infinite supply.
Yet, as David Gelman, a New Jersey lawyer, reminds us, when people try to test celebrity privacy law, the legal system will always have a role to play:
“There’s a fine line between feeding the public curiosity with celebrity content they crave and violating the legal rights of celebrities who are trying to live their lives with some basic degree of privacy. Ultimately, where those who make a living off taking pictures of celebrities or gathering information about their lives go too far, the courts are there to decide exactly where that line is.”
With Britney Spears, that invasion of privacy was twofold, coming from her conservator-father and also documentary filmmakers, who dug deep into the 13 years of her conservatorship and unearthed private documents. While these documentaries shed light on some of the profound privacy violations of her conservatorship, they definitely tested the line of investigative reporting.
For those wondering why we can’t simply err on the side of affording celebrities more privacy, there is a long disconnect between the depth of privacy individual celebrities want and what the law actually affords them. This tension isn’t going anywhere in the near future and absent federal legislation that specifies a uniform expectation of privacy, celebrities and those who profit from their image will continue to play games that sometimes quickly turn dark.