JACQUELINE KENNEDY ONASSIS and Ron Galella are back in court in New York, Mrs. Onassis asking the court to protect her from further harassment, and Mr. Galella crying "freedom of the press." This long-running feud threatens to take on the dimensions of the AT&T antitrust litigation and has certainly done more to build the circulation of certain tabloids. The case holds a certain fascination since it raises some questions of fundamental importance to lawyers and journalists, as well as to celebrities. Is Mrs. Onassis asking for some kind of special privilege here? After all, shouldn't people in public life expect to be photographed? Isn't Mr. Galella merely doing his job as a news photographer, and isn't his conduct protected by the First Amendment? Is any real harm being done by his admittedly aggressive brand of journalism?
Let's go back 10 years to the facts. Mr. Galella is a free-lance photographer who has made a career of stalking Mrs. Onassis and selling her photograph to various publications. The tactics he used in obtaining those photographs brought him into conflict with the Secret Service, charged, at the time, with protecting the late president's minor children. Mr. Galella then sued Mrs. Onassis and the Secret Service, charging that they were interfering with his ability to make a living. He demanded $1.3 million in damages.
Until that point, with extraordinary patience, Mrs. Onassis had withstood Mr. Galella's tactics. But when she was hauled into court by the photographer, she counterclaimed, asking that the court forbid these practices since they constituted harassment. In the course of a five-week trial, it was shown that Mr. Galella's "news-gathering techniques" included harassing Mrs. Onassis in numerous public places, including the sidewalk in front of her apartment, restaurants, theaters, churches, public parks, walkways, beaches and her children's school.
This harassment took the form of interrupting private parties, family outings and personal transactions. Mr. Galella set off flashbulbs inches from Mrs. Onassis' face and directly against the window of her car. He jostled her, hit her with his camera strap to provoke a reaction, and circled her in a power boat while she was swimming. He hired someone disguised as Santa Claus to grab Mrs. Onassis and hug her while he snapped away. He bribed doormen and hairdressers and even romanced a member of Mrs. Onassis' personal staff to obtain information about her private life.
But there's more. He went after John and Caroline Kennedy in the same manner. Mr. Galella invaded their schools, interrupted student performances in which they had a part and, in general, frightened and embarrassed them. He jumped from behind a bush into a bike path causing the 10-year-old boy to brake sharply and almost fall. He disrupted Caroline's tennis lesson by entering the court and dancing around her, snapping her picture as she attempted to hit the ball. He drove her to tears, clicking his camera and shouting, "Don't be nervous, honey." In all, the trial judge cited dozens of separate instances of this kind of behavior and granted Mrs. Onassis a permanent injunction. His order forbade Mr. Galella to come within 75 yards of the children or within 50 yards of Mrs. Onassis. This order was later modified by an appeals court to 30 feet and 25 feet, respectively.
According to Mrs. Onassis' testimony in a New York courtroom last week, harassment has continued sporadically during the 10-year period since the original litigation and has included the disruption of Caroline's graduation from Harvard and John's from Andover. This summer, however, Mr. Galella's pursuit became, if possible, even worse, culminating in an incident on Martha's Vineyard in which he forced Caroline's bicycle out of its lane and into oncoming traffic. It was this incident specifically that brought Mrs. Onassis back into court, asking that the photographer be cited for contempt for failure to abide by the 1972 court order.
But the question remains: is such conduct, as offensive as it may be, a violation of the law? Isn't it protected by the First Amendment? A careful reading of the federal appeals court opinion in 1973 answers both questions. The course of conduct pursued by the free-lance photographer in this case was held to be in violation of New York's criminal statute against harassment. The federal appeals court in 1973 upheld the trial court's finding that Mr. Galella was guilty of harassment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, assault and battery, invasion of privacy and commercial exploitation of the president's widow. The court also held, quite clearly and sensibly, that crimes committed in news gathering are not protected by the First Amendment. Although Mrs. Onassis is a public figure and thus subject to news coverage, the appeals court found that the photographer "went far beyond the reasonable bounds of news gathering by his constant surveillance, obstrusive and intruding presence."
In fact, the court also took care to protect Mr. Galella's right to photograph Mrs. Onassis without harassing her by greatly reducing the distance limitations that had been imposed by the trial court. The judges, correctly, saw no threat to a free press in requiring its agents to act within the law. The specific restrictions imposed in this case apply, of course, only to Mr. Galella or anyone acting in his behalf, and not to the press at large.
Any celebrity must put up with a certain invasion of privacy, but the pattern of behavior described by the court in this case offends sensibilities, defies minimal standards of civility and abuses the prerogatives of the press. Mr. Galella's conduct sets him apart from other working journalists. His tactics are not the norm. In condemning them, one does not undermine or diminish the rights of the responsible working press.