Mel Gibson’s drunken tirade in a Malibu sheriff’s substation has inspired more than a wave of unwanted publicity for the Lethal Weapon star. It has sparked a new bill by a Santa Monica Democrat that could lead to jail time for cops who sell celebrity information to the press.
The bill, AB 920, by Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, is sponsored by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, which patrols celebrity-rich parts of Los Angeles County, including Malibu and West Hollywood. The measure would make it a misdemeanor for court or police officers to sell any information to the press before it is released through traditional channels. It would also make it a crime for media outlets to solicit the information. Brownley says the Gibson fracas helped underscore the need for the bill.
“In the case of Mel Gibson’s alleged drunk-driving arrest on Pacific Coast Highway, the police report and his mug shots were on the Internet that night.”
In the Gibson case, the sheriffs’ office originally said Gibson was arrested without incident. But the Web site TMZ.com later reported on Gibson’s belligerent behavior and alleged anti-Semitic comments.
TMZ reported that an internal sheriff’s investigation into the leak of Gibson’s arrest information led to a raid on the home of Deputy James Mee, who was the target of Gibson’s anti-Semitic slurs. Sheriff’s department investigators raided Mee’s home on September 13 and seized his computer, telephone records and other documents, according to the celebrity Web site.
Wayne Bilowit, a lobbyist for the L.A. County Sheriffs Department, says there was no sign of money exchanging hands in the Gibson case. And while Mee may have violated department policy, the handing over of information without compensation would not be criminalized under Brownley’s bill.
“Organizations like TMZ and the Smoking Gun are wanting to get the story ahead of time. They’re offering people money to release the information before it should be released,” he said.
The Smoking Gun is mentioned in the bill analysis by name, says Brownley, because of documents on its Web site that revealed the name of the child accuser in the Michael Jackson trial. But Smoking Gun reporter Joe Jesselli says the site does not pay sources for documents or information.
“That’s something we’ve never done,” he says. “Of all the media sites, that’s something we just don’t do. We generally steer clear of that kind of journalism.”
Brownley says her bill is not about protecting celebrities–it’s about ensuring everyone’s constitutional right to a fair trial. “This bill is trying to ensure the integrity of the public-safety system and the court system,” she says.
She said the selling of this kind of information leads to tainted juries, and undermines citizens’ Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial.
Bilowit said he knew of “four cases in Beverly Hills where they had to remove civilian personnel” for taking money for information.
“It’s not a huge problem yet, but we want to try to nip it in the bud.”
And, he says, the increased pressures and competition from gossip Web sites has upped the ante. “Traditional media would always play within certain rules or guidelines. The new Internet media is trying to go beyond those rules.”
But the concept of “paycheck journalism” predates the rise of the Internet, and it has come up in the Legislature before. After the O.J. Simpson trial, then-Speaker Willie Brown pushed a bill aimed at preventing jurors from striking quick book deals. The bill cleared the Legislature and was signed by Governor Pete Wilson, but was later thrown out by the courts.
Last session, Santa Barbara Democrat Pedro Nava tried again with AB 1626, which would have bumped that limit back up to one year.
Nava’s bill surfaced in the wake of the Jackson trial. Nava was moved after a juror in the case had agreed to a book deal immediately after being picked for the Jackson jury.
The bill was opposed by the California Newspaper Publishers Association. The bill died in Assembly Public Safety.
Brownley’s AB 920 cleared the Assembly Public Safety committee this week on a unanimous vote, with no organized opposition. But some First Amendment groups, including the CNPA, say they may wind up opposing the measure before it moves ahead.
CNPA’s Jim Ewert says his group has not taken a position on the Brownley bill yet, but that may change. “We’ve flagged it, and we’ll be taking it to our governmental-affairs committee later this month,” says Ewert.
Contact Anthony York at firstname.lastname@example.org