The Price of Fame: Celebrities and the Right to Privacy

In a new book, law professor Robin Barnes discusses celebrities, the media, and the law.

Robin Barnes' book discusses how increased press freedom has permitted disregard for individuals' right to privacy. Stock photo

For Britney Spears, Sandra Bullock, Princess Caroline of Monaco, and scores of other celebrities, fame more often than not comes at a price – the loss of one’s privacy.

Living their day-to-day lives in the public eye, many celebrities must contend with the fabrications and distortions of gossip columnists, the infatuation of stalkers, and the unrelenting paparazzi, who follow them into restaurants, to their children’s schools, on vacations, and even into their own residential neighborhoods.

In her book, Outrageous Invasions: Celebrities’ Private Lives, Media, and the Law (Oxford University Press, 2010), published earlier this year, law professor Robin Barnes examines how the private lives of the rich and famous – on display for the public in the form of entertainment news shows, tabloid magazine headlines, and online Hollywood gossip blogs – are routinely invaded in what she calls our “tell-all society.”

“Citizens of the United States [and] European Union are guaranteed constitutionally protected rights to safety, privacy, and freedom of self-expression,” Barnes writes in her introduction to Outrageous Invasions. And yet, she asserts, these rights are frequently violated in the case of American celebrities.

To listen to an interview with Barnes, click here: Law professor Robin Barnes discusses her new book, Outrageous Invasions.

Celebrities Are Not Public Servants

Over the past several decades, Barnes says, the U.S. press has been granted increased freedom. Although this is considered a positive development important to our democratic way of life, Barnes demonstrates how it has in the meantime permitted tabloid publishers “to expand their cottage industry of disseminating the intimate details of the lives of the rich and famous” – without regard for these individuals’ rights to privacy.

Barnes’ book touches on the ‘outrageous invasions’ endured by a wide range of celebrities, from Tiger Woods, John Lennon, and Arnold Schwarzenegger to Naomi Campbell and Nadya Suleman – branded by the press as “Octomom” – to Suri Cruise and other children of stars.

According to Barnes, who teaches courses in constitutional law and serves as a national and international speaker on issues related to democracy, free speech, privacy, and human rights, not every celebrity should necessarily be regarded as a public figure, nor should their personal lives be considered “matters of public concern.”

“We know we have to keep an eye on public officials,” she says. “The question is, does that entitle us to know everything about Monica Lewinsky’s dress? Why throw every athlete, actor, and musician into the same pot? Celebrities are not public servants. They don’t wield that much influence. That argument is specious at best. The European Convention contains specific provisions that identify human dignity as a paramount value. Individuals, including members of the media and representatives of the government, must behave in ways that are respectful toward a person’s private and family life. Not so in the United States, where free speech always trumps.”

Examining the outcomes of numerous legal battles from the U.S. Supreme Court as well as the High Courts of Europe, Barnes identifies the differences in the protections granted European celebrities versus those given to American stars when it comes to the entertainment press.

Barnes points out that in France, for instance, photographs that are not of public interest cannot be published without the celebrity’s permission.

“In Europe they talk about free development of personality and human dignity,” she says. “They insist upon a meaningful definition of what the public has a right to know. They want to separate the issue because of the longstanding need to offer respect for individual privacy.”

Corporations and the Media

While Tiger Woods’ apologies for his extramarital affairs received “wall-to-wall network coverage,” Barnes notes that similarly timed news about the hefty bonuses awarded to bank executives in the wake of the bailout was given minimal attention.

“We give the press a wide range of freedom – to look at the banks, not to ruin Tiger’s family,” Barnes says.

“We’re in a situation where five or six major corporations own the media – not only the newspapers and television channels, but the magazines, Internet sites, blogs, the PR firms, the publishing houses,” she says. “They keep the public focused on celebrities. When they can get people to focus on Tiger Woods and not the corporate scandals on Wall Street, they win.”

Having written Outrageous Invasions with an audience of “everyone” in mind, Barnes hopes her book is accessible enough for “undergraduates to leaf through it, but also professors at the graduate level to use it in class as well.” She has assembled a supplement to the book – Privacy and Defamation in the U.S. and European Union – which contains cases, legal articles, an electronic teaching manual, and other accompanying materials that may be used to teach this topic as a graduate course. Ideally, however, Barnes would like to put the book in the hands of the people she wants to read it – namely, she says, every judge on the federal circuit.

The law school is having a banner year for books, with the publication of 10 new faculty works – including Barnes’s book – by major academic presses. In honor of these and other faculty publications in respected law journals, the school has dubbed the 2010-2011 academic year ‘The Year of the Book.’