Major news outlets call the FAA’s drone restrictions a violation of the First Amendment


(Brian Fung/The Washington Post)

You may have heard about farmers, pilots and even real estate agents calling on the Federal Aviation Administration to allow the use of commercial drones in U.S. airspace. But now some of the nation's largest newspaper companies — The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Associated Press and Gannett, among others — are saying the FAA is restricting free speech by not allowing drones to fly.

The news organizations argue that banning the use of drones amounts to a First Amendment violation, according to court documents filed this week in the case of a filmmaker who was fined by the FAA for using a drone to film an ad.

"This overly broad policy," the brief reads, "implemented through a patchwork of regulatory and policy statements and an ad hoc cease-and-desist enforcement process, has an impermissible chilling effect on the First Amendment newsgathering rights of journalists."

The media organizations filed the brief in support of Raphael Pirker, who was fined $10,000 by the agency for using a drone to shoot a commercial at the University of Virginia. A federal judge threw out the FAA's case in March, encouraging drone advocates, but the FAA is continuing to fight.

"The FAA is appealing the decision of an NTSB administrative law judge to the full National Transportation Safety Board, which has the effect of staying the decision until the board rules," the FAA said in a statement. "The agency is concerned that this decision could impact the safe operation of the national airspace system and the safety of people and property on the ground."

News outlets have been eager to use drones in their coverage of events. "Reports on traffic, hurricanes, wildfires, and crop yields could all be told more safely and cost-effectively with the use of [drones]," they argue in the brief.

The FAA is scheduled to start rolling out rules for commercial drone operators in August, but a recent Government Accountability Office report cast doubts on the agency's ability to meet that deadline.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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