Legal Battle Looms on Drone Newsgathering

February 19, 2014

Drones — unmanned aerial vehicles with cameras aboard that can send live video back to their controllers (and the online world) — are already being used by environmental journalists to report important stories in ways previously impossible. But journalists face a looming confrontation on whether the federal government will try to prevent such newsgathering by making it illegal.

Newscasters have shot car chases from helicopters for decades. But drones, which are getting smaller and less expensive, could help environmental journalists cover forest fires, floods, pipeline explosions, chemical leaks, coal-ash spills, wildlife (and wildlife crimes), protests, and severe weather, among other news. Will the Federal Aviation Administration make that illegal?

The first answer is likely to come soon. Connecticut journalist Pedro Rivera filed suit February 18, 2014, against Hartford police officers who he said violated his First Amendment rights to gather news. He had been using a remote-controlled drone to take pictures of a car wreck, and the officers had demanded that he stop doing so.

Whatever the outcome of that case, drone journalists are awaiting a definitive ruling by the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA is trying to come up with rules for integrating remote-control aircraft with the rest of the U.S. aviation system. Until then, the FAA has been perceived as restricting drones severely. But practitioners at the Missouri Drone Journalism Program are worried that the rules the FAA eventually comes up with could be worse.

An FAA flack in January made headlines by announcing that drone journalism was flatly illegal — while use of drones by hobbyists was fine. The distinction, he said, was that journalism was done "for commercial purposes." The idea that journalism is always done for profit is now more obsolete than the Wright brothers' 1903 Flyer. So the flack, who had no regulatory authority himself, did not actually clarify the legal issues.