Penn (Reuters)
Penn (Reuters)

Sean Penn and the paparazzi

In a thinly disguised effort to distract me during a poker game on Saturday night, a friend asked if CPJ was planning to take up the case of the photographer who was attacked by Sean Penn.

Frankly, this was the first time I’d heard of the incident that took place last October in which Penn allegedly kicked a photographer and smashed his camera. Penn was indicted on February 19, and will be arraigned on March 22. The altercation was captured on videotape and can be seen on TMZ.

CPJ’s focus is on journalists facing genuine violence and repression, not celebrity dustups. Still, I feel compelled to comment on this particular case because Penn styles himself as a journalist who has covered Venezuela, Cuba, and Iran. In fact, CPJ took up Penn’s case when Iranian officials confiscated his camera during a 2005 reporting trip. Penn was covering the elections.

Let’s face it: Penn’s conduct was utterly hypocritical. I have sympathy for celebrities who are stalked by paparazzi, although Penn has a history of losing his cool with the press.

But press freedom means you tolerate celebrity photographers because there is no simple way to restrict their activities without providing a convenient justification for tyrants who will use the same arguments to suppress critical reporting.  That’s why Penn’s kick was a low blow.