In the on-stage preamble to his song "Love Me, I’m A Liberal," the late Phil Ochs used to describe the classic liberal as "ten degrees to the left of center when times are good; ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally."
Classic liberal Barbra Streisand seems to be offering an update to the line. When a cause affects her personally, she’s fifty million dollars to the right of center.
That’s how much Streisand is demanding in a new lawsuit against the California Coastal Records Project, brainchild of environmental activists Kenneth and Gabrielle Adelman, whose California coastline website contains over 12,000 frames of the California coast shot since 2002. Streisand is also suing layer42.net, the Adelmans’ ISP, and pictopia.com, a firm that sells high-quality prints of photos on the site.
The Adelmans, retired dot-commers formerly known for owning the largest solar electric installation in the state, have provided an absolutely invaluable resource for coastal protection activists. Shot by Ken from a helicopter flown by Gabrielle, the photos cover every inch of the California coastline other than for a few miles along the Vandenberg Air Force Base near Point Conception. The website displays the photos in an accessible, easy to search database: grassroots activists have already used the site to stop construction of illegal seawalls, track changes since historic photos were taken, and promote the natural beauty of our delicate coast. It’s one of the most innovative environmental projects ever to hit the Web, and the Adelmans offer it to the world for free.
Enter Yentl. One of those 12,000 shots of the California coast, visible here, frames her garish Point Dume estate–looking for all the world like a handful of Nantucket crackerbox houses stapled together by a drunken contractor–at a distant enough remove that her poolside chaises longue occupy about twelve pixels each. She’s claiming that the photo, one of dozens available on the web, invades her privacy, and that the rough map available on the site will encourage stalkers, who presumably have missed until now all the mentions of her address on the web, some of them with explicit directions to the estate at the end of Wildlife Road in the hoity toity Mahou Riviera section of Malibu.
It is probably beside the point to suggest this diva get over herself. We’re talking, after all, about someone whose biography on her personal website runs 3261 words sprawled across four pages. (By contrast, the official biography of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, arguably the most important person in the world, runs one page and 1082 words.) This is not a woman who got where she is by having an insufficient sense of self-importance.
But it does seem she’s gotten some bad advice along the way. For one thing, her suit over the photo might be construed as making the photo’s republication on journalistic and diswcussion websites permissible under fair use doctrine. If she succeeds and has the photo pulled down, it’s a safe bet a hundred mirror sites will pop up that day. That photo is out and in the world now, and Streisand may as well get used to it.
More ominously, if Streisand successfully gets her photo yanked from the Adelmans’ site, a precedent will have been set. Every homeowners’ association that wants to riprap their beachfront, every rancher who’d rather not control runoff from his eroding fields, every used car dealer along Highway One will be able to launch privacy suits to shield their activities from public view.
Faultline contributor Mark Massara, the director of the Sierra Club’s Coastal program, is blunt. "It is inconceivable to me that someone who proclaims herself an environmentalist would threaten to dismantle one of the greatest high tech projects to protect the California coast in all time just because they chose to place their backyard on a coastal bluff. At some point, someone needs to sit her down and tell her the public interest is at stake here."
I wish I thought that would help. Malibu’s upper crust is well known for personifying Phil Ochs’ characterization. Streisand’s neighbor and liberal Democrat David Geffen led the rich folks’ reaction to unfettered public access to the town’s public beaches; the town’s beachfront denizens led the recent campaign to oust environmentalist Coastal Commission Chairwoman Sara Wan when the fight over the town’s coastal plan became too contentious.
Streisand’s suit is frivolous, says Ken Adelman. I’m not a lawyer, but I tend to agree. It looks groundless enough that it may well be thrown out of court, eventually. But the damage will be done. Fortunately, the Adelmans are better off than the average environmentalist web publisher, but wouldn’t it be better to spend those legal fees on something to benefit the planet, maybe? Some liberal. Some environmentalist. Yentl the yeshiva boy would have had the Yiddish readily at hand to describe Streisand the litigant: "Blufferke." Hypocrite.
CHRIS CLARKE is the editor of Faultline: the magazine of the California environment. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org