Wednesday, May 21, 2008

People Magazine Writer's Privacy Suit Bites Hand That Feeds Her

People magazine would probably fold without paparazzi feeding it revealing images of celebrities. But a writer for the magazine says two paparazzi, one of whom she was dating, violated her privacy when they secretly videotaped actor Heath Ledger snorting cocaine in her hotel room.

As disingenuous as the allegation may seem, the unnamed scribe has enlisted a prominent L.A. privacy lawyer to pursue the case against her photographer boyfriend Darren Banks, videographer Eric Munn, and their employer, Splash News.

“Plaintiff has suffered ... damages to her reputation by the inference that she somehow participated with paparazzi in the drugging and hidden taping of Mr. Ledger,” the complaint says.

Ledger, apparently unaware that the two men were Splash! staffers, accepted an invitation to the plaintiff’s hotel room at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood after a SAG Awards party on Jan. 26, 2006. When they reached the room, Munn allegedly provided Ledger with cocaine, then snuck out onto the balcony and shot video of the actor snorting the drug.

“Mr. Ledger became aware that he was being videotaped and became very upset,” the suit says. To appease him, the two paparazzi “kept insisting they would destroy the tape and it would never see the light of day.”

Munn left the room, ostensibly to dispose of the tape in a trash bin, and “After a few months when plaintiff saw that Munn did not sell the video, she forgot about it.”

Then Ledger died of an accidental drug overdose in January 2008 and the tape showed up posthumously on Entertainment Tonight and elsewhere, generating, the suit says, more than $1 million in sales.

The plaintiff's lawyer, Neville L. Johnson, is a pioneer of hidden-camera privacy cases who won a landmark California Supreme Court ruling over a TV news show's use of hidden cameras to spy on the offices of a psychic hotline.

The hotline's employees had a reasonable expectation of privacy that their "interactions within a nonpublic workplace will not be videotaped in secret by a journalist," the court said in Sanders v. ABC, 20 Cal.4th 907 (1999).

The People staffer claims she suffered a similar intrusion upon her seclusion. “Plaintiff never would have allowed Munn and Banks in her hotel room if she had known that they intended to take hidden camera footage and provide drugs to Mr. Ledger,” she insists.

But in Sanders, the plaintiffs were unwitting subjects of a news story. Playing the privacy card is much more of a stretch for a celebrity journalist who, from her own professional experience, should have at least suspected what the two paparazzi were up to when they brought the star of “Brokeback Mountain” to her hotel room.

And what damage can there be to her reputation when she works for People and dates a paparazzi? As the old adage goes, “If you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas.”