The Streisand effect is a force of nature

Sean Penn could soon learn an iron rule of celebrity – when seek to censor something, it just makes it more popular, writes Rob Long

Barbra Streisand, the internationally famous resident of Malibu, California, takes her privacy very seriously.

Too seriously, it can be argued. A few years ago, she discovered that aerial photographs of her beachfront home were readily available on the internet. She and her lawyers sprang into action and filed a US$50 million (Dh183m) lawsuit against the photographer and the hosting site for violation of privacy.

It didn’t matter, apparently, that these weren’t paparazzi photographs – the photographer was working for an environmental outfit called the California Coastal Records Project, and was photographing the coast to document beachfront erosion. As far as Streisand and her lawyers were concerned, her house and its image were private property.

She lost her case. But by filing it in the first place, she managed to call worldwide attention to the obscure photographs on the obscure website. By complaining, loudly and publicly, that photographs of her house were available and a few clicks away, she scored a rather spectacular beachfront own goal.

Put it this way: the total number of downloads of the photographs before she filed her lawsuit was two. The total number of downloads of the photographs after she filed her lawsuit was 420,000.

Thus was coined the term “The Streisand Effect”, which is what happens when you try to remove, punish or censor some statement or piece of content and you only end up making it more popular and widespread.

Sean Penn, the explosively talented and deeply temperamental actor, may be tangling with the Streisand Effect himself soon.

He recently filed a defamation lawsuit against Oscar-winning film and television producer Lee Daniels, over comments made by Daniels about the star of the Fox Television smash hit Empire.

It’s all a little complicated – and lurid – to get into, but the star of Empire, which Daniels created and produces, Terrence Howard, has been in trouble for domestic violence.

There have been press reports and a certain amount of outrage and even some calls for him to be removed from the cast of the hit television series.

In a passing comment to a journalist, Lee Daniels made the comparison between the reaction to Terrence Howard – who is African-American – and the reaction to past famous movie star troublemakers Marlon Brando and Sean Penn by suggesting that the latter two got away with similar actions because of their race.

Marlon Brando isn’t alive anymore to hire any lawyers, but Sean Penn certainly is.

He claims that Lee Daniels defamed him – that is, that he lied about him and in a damaging way – which is a bold claim for a guy who has been arrested six times and who served 33 days in prison for assaulting a photographer.

But that’s sort of Sean Penn’s point: yes, he admits, I may not be the nicest guy around and I’ve had my run-ins with the police, but I’ve never been in trouble for domestic violence and I won’t let anyone say I have been.

But here’s where it gets complicated: for three years in the late 1980s, Sean Penn was married to music and fashion icon Madonna. (If you’re around my age, you’ll remember this bizarre moment in pop culture history; if you’re younger, you’ll wonder why anyone cares.) The marriage, you’ll recall, was not a happy one. That two such impulsive and unrestrained egos even tried to make a go of it argues once again that love is blind.

During that marriage – at least, these were the reports of the time, and they’ve been repeated endlessly – Sean Penn allegedly hit her over the head with a baseball bat.

This story has followed Penn throughout the years – it appears in news accounts and Wikipedia pages – but now, finally, on the heels of Lee Daniels’ casual comments, enough is enough. Sean Penn wants to set the record straight. According to the record, Penn was never charged with domestic violence.

But the record – like all records, like my record and like your record – is bound to be complicated.

The only way to really know what happened during that marriage – who hit whom with what, and where, and if charges were filed and dropped, and when – and that’s to get all of the parties involved (hi, Madonna!) and get them in front of a judge, under oath, to answer a lawyer’s questions – to answer Lee Daniels’ lawyer’s questions, especially, because Sean Penn is suing for US$10 million, which while a lot less than the US$50 million that Barbra Streisand demanded all those years ago, is still a lot of money and still worth arguing about.

Sean Penn may end up a victim of the Streisand Effect – he may just call attention to an episode in his past he’d rather we all forget.

Or, he may coin a new phrase – the Penn Stand – to describe a gutsy and forthright attempt to correct the record and clear your name.

The only thing we know for certain is that the Lawyer Rule will always be in effect, and that’s this: no matter who wins or loses, the lawyers will always get rich.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl