LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - For years Hollywood's paparazzi have hounded celebrities, but now -- with help from local politicians, a lawyer in the Monica Lewinsky case, and even Malibu surfers -- they are the ones feeling the heat.
In Los Angeles and the nearby beachside enclave of Malibu, city leaders want to slap restrictions on the paparazzi citing safety concerns. But the paps, along with legal experts, say they are protected by their right to free speech under the U.S. Constitution.
"The paparazzo is just as much covered by the First Amendment as you or I, or any Joe Schmo up the street," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Virginia-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
"I don't think under any First Amendment law you can single out a paparazzi photographer," she said.
Still, many people are trying.
Numerous Hollywood celebrities, ranging from Mel Gibson to Britney Spears, have homes in posh Malibu and as a result, it has become a magnet for photographers looking for stars.
In late June, several Malibu surfers swarmed some paparazzi who had gathered at a beach to get shots of "Fool's Gold" actor Matthew McConaughey, 38, as he surfed.
A fight ensued, was captured on video and posted online showing the shirtless surfers -- some apparently holding beer bottles -- battling with the photographers.
"No one who lives here wants you here," one surfer yells.
One week later, peace seemed to reign on Malibu's beaches as surfers handed out flowers to the paparazzi in a gesture of goodwill after the two groups traded threats online for days and as sheriff's deputies patrolled to prevent further fights.
Still, Malibu officials are considering regulations that include buffer zones around certain areas, licensing photographers and taxing revenues from the photos they take.
Malibu City Councilman Andy Stern supports new rules, but declined to say specifically what is under consideration.
He told Reuters he himself has experienced perilous situations as paparazzi tailed celebrities on a key stretch of highway in Malibu.
"My obligation is to protect everyone, not just the paparazzi," Stern said. "If they want us to ignore them, that's just not going to happen."
Malibu officials are getting advice from Kenneth Starr, the attorney whose investigation of former President Bill Clinton led to the uncovering of his sexual liaison with Monica Lewinsky and caused his impeachment. Starr is dean of the Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu.
Earlier this year in nearby Los Angeles, City Councilman Dennis Zine proposed restrictions on the paparazzi, suggesting they be kept several feet away from stars they photograph.
"It's becoming more combative where people are saying they've had enough with these people," Zine said.
"Right now, you have no laws that really apply. You have a chaotic situation that keeps on getting worse," he said.
Zine points to the 1997 death of Princess Diana, who was killed in the Paris car crash along with companion Dodi al-Fayed as the paparazzi pursued them, as an example of why Los Angeles needs restrictions on celebrity photographers.
The number of paparazzi tailing Hollywood's young elite has swelled in recent years, and dozens of photographers often crowd celebrity hot spots. In decades past, top restaurants and clubs attracted only three or four.
Starchasing is easier for the paparazzi in California and the United States than in some countries in Europe, where privacy laws favor stars. In France, for example, the paps often must get a celebrity's permission to take and distribute a picture.
Lower costs for photo equipment and growing demand from magazine editors for shots of celebrities doing every-day things -- instead of looking coiffed on the red carpet -- also has contributed to the growing numbers of paparazzi.
"They want to see them with their hair kind of messed up, they want to see them with maybe some spaghetti sauce on their shirt, they want to see them a little bit pudgy," said Brad Elterman, co-owner of Los Angeles-based agency Buzz Foto.
Paparazzi -- many of whom are immigrants -- can sell the same picture to different magazines and make thousands of dollars on a single shot, an income stream that affords top photographers nice cars and flexible hours, Elterman said.
"It's like the Mafia, once you're in you never want to leave," he said.
Experts said that authorities in California could crack down on the paparazzi's excesses by enforcing current traffic and trespassing laws. Still, those clamp-downs would not affect the ease with which unflattering celebrity photos are transmitted on the Internet, or the public's demand for more.
"We're in an age where no one really knows where the lines can or should be drawn," said Gary Morgan, CEO of the L.A.-based celebrity photo agency Splash News.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Eddie Evans