Journos Fight Feds To Keep Drones As News Tool

May 14, 2014

You may not even remember some 20 police cars chasing O.J. Simpson's black Bronco at 56 mph on an L.A. freeway in 1994, but it was was one of the high (or low) points of modern TV news. Yeah, drones could be even better (and cheaper) than News Chopper 4.

But only if the federal government doesn't put its regulatory jackboot on the First Amendment right to gather news.

More than a dozen news media organizations filed a brief May 6, 2014, arguing that the Federal Aviation Administration is violating the First Amendment with its limits on drones. They include major media companies such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Tribune Company, as well as nonprofit groups including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Radio-Television Digital News Association.

Drones could be a major boost for environmental journalism, enhancing coverage of stories such as forest fires, feedlot pollution, coal-ash spills, and beach erosion.

The media groups were intervening in the appeal of a judge's overturning of a $10,000 Federal Aviation Administration fine imposed on Raphael Pirker, a videographer who shot a promotional video of the University of Virginia campus.

The FAA is in the process of developing rules for drone flights in U.S. airspace. In the meanwhile, it had declared that drone flights by hobbyists were permitted, but flights by for-profit companies were not. An FAA spokesperson declared that news media companies, being for-profit, were always forbidden to fly drones. This ignored the question of whether many media companies were actually making profits, or whether non-profit news organizations were allowed to fly drones.

Under this regime, the FAA slapped the $10,000 fine on Pirker in 2011 for violating its interim guidelines. Pirker took the FAA to court, saying it had acted unlawfully.

Then on March 6, 2014, Patrick Geraghty, an administrative law judge for the National Transportation Safety Board, threw out the FAA fine on Pirker. The NTSB acts as a court of appeals for FAA actions.

The FAA, sticking to its guns, appealed Geraghty's decision. The media groups filed their friend-of-the-court brief May 6 to oppose the FAA in its appeal.

The groups argued that "as a constitutionally protected activity, ... news gathering should receive greater protections than those afforded to hobbyists and commercial users" in the use of drones. "The NTSB's ruling in this case should acknowledge this First Amendment interest as an example of the harm created by the FAA's unauthorized regulation."