There’s a nasty court case playing out in France right now which highlights some of the differences in fundamental rights between the United States and socialist bastions in Europe. It also raises some interesting questions about the limits of privacy. A few years back, some paparazzi snapped topless photos of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, while she and her husband were lounging around a pool. The pictures wound up in a couple of French magazines and quickly went viral. Now the photographers and even the publishers of the magazines are in court and facing serious charges which could result in substantial fines. (Associated Press)

Three photographers appeared in a French court Tuesday over topless photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge, an alleged invasion of privacy that outraged Britain’s royal family.

The photos were published in a French gossip magazine in 2012, the year after Kate Middleton married Prince William. The couple subsequently filed a court complaint, but didn’t attend the trial outside Paris…

The owner and executive editor of celebrity magazine Closer also were tried along with the former publisher of a French regional newspaper that also ran the photos. None of the executives attended.

Obviously taking racy photos of somebody without their permission is rude and shouldn’t be done to begin with. And in some cases it can be illegal even in the United States… but not always. In even the most westernized bastions of Europe, however, there’s still a far more socialist climate and your rights don’t extend nearly as far as they do in America. This is particularly true if you offend any of the royals. I don’t think they’ll toss you in a tower and chop off your head as they did in the old days, but they’ll certainly bring the hammer down on you.

But what if that had happened in America? Would it be illegal and would those same people be in court if these topless pictures had been of the First Lady, some governor or a member of Congress? I suppose the answer is that it depends on the circumstances. Remember that the pictures of the Duchess were taken with a telephoto lens when she was outdoors and in view of the public. (Assuming you had a good enough zoom lens.) We do have some protections under the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act, but those generally apply to places like gym locker rooms and showers, tanning salons, department store changing rooms or other places where you have a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” If you are out on the public street people can take your picture without penalty. If you are on private property but outdoors in view of public spaces the question is a bit more murky.

And what of the magazines who publish your picture? It’s illegal to use your image for a profit without your permission and without compensating you if such arrangements were made, but that comes down to something more related to copyright laws rather than violating your privacy. In Europe it’s a different matter entirely… particularly if you’re potentially in line to be Queen.

Just something to mull over as this case plays out. We have a lot more freedom in the United States than our European or Asian counterparts, though there are still limits. If you’re traveling abroad you should probably keep that in mind.