Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Media Companies Say Federal Aviation Administration Drone Rule Violates First Amendment; Group Contends 'Overly Broad Policy' Has a 'Chilling Effect'

The Wall Street Journal

By  Jack Nicas

Updated May 6, 2014 6:16 p.m. ET

Some of the largest U.S. news organizations are accusing the Federal Aviation Administration of infringing on their First Amendment rights by effectively prohibiting them from using drones for reporting in the country.

Fourteen news organizations, including the Associated Press, New York Times Co.,  and Tribune Co., filed a joint brief in a high-profile legal case that is testing the FAA's legal authority to regulate drones.

In the brief, the media groups criticized the FAA's "overly broad policy" that restricts use of commercial drones in the U.S., saying it violates the First Amendment right of newsgathering and has already had "an impermissible chilling effect" on some journalists' reporting.

The so-called friend-of-the-court brief was filed in opposition to the FAA's appeal of a recent ruling that overturned the agency's first fine against a drone pilot. In that decision, National Transportation Safety Board Judge Patrick Geraghty ruled that drones are "model aircraft" and thus not subject to the FAA's rules on manned aircraft.

The FAA has rejected that interpretation, saying it can pursue penalties against model aircraft that endanger air safety. The agency appealed the ruling to the full NTSB.

The FAA fined Austrian videographer Raphael Pirker in 2012 for allegedly flying his drone recklessly while filming the University of Virginia.

The media groups' brief reports instances of when journalists opted not to publish footage shot by a drone because of warnings from the FAA.

The FAA said Tuesday that it is concerned that the judge's ruling "could impact the safe operation of the national airspace system and the safety of people and property on the ground." In an email last week the agency said it regulates the use of drones, not "how footage obtained using a [drone] is used." The agency added that it "can and does take enforcement action against careless and reckless operation of an aircraft, whether manned or unmanned."

In the brief, the news organizations urged the NTSB to affirm Judge Geraghty's ruling and, "for a broad range of important societal interests, to dismiss similar enforcement actions until the FAA has properly enacted" a rule for small drones.

The FAA is expected to propose a rule for small drones in November, which would likely take one to two years to become final.

Dow Jones & Co., which publishes The Wall Street Journal, wasn't among the media groups involved in the brief.