Bill to counter drone misuse threatens journalism

Caitlin Vogus Headshot

Deputy Director of Advocacy

Journalists increasingly use drones to report the news, but a new bill in Congress could give the government an excuse to target drone reporting.

Josh Sorenson, via Pexels, CC0 1.0.

A fisherman stands with his boat in a dry lakebed as the camera slowly pans out, revealing an enormous expanse of desolate ground left behind when the water receded from Lake Poopó, Bolivia. Photojournalist Josh Haner used a drone to capture that video, showing the devastating impacts of climate change.

Like Haner, more and more journalists at the national and local level are using drones to document the impacts of war, natural disasters, pandemic stay-at-home orders, protests, and more. Drones give journalists access to otherwise inaccessible views and let them report on dangerous events safely from a distance.

Even though the Federal Aviation Administration already regulates journalists’ use of drones, a new federal bill now on the table would threaten journalists’ and others’ ability to use them to document the news or engage in other First Amendment-protected activities, like monitoring the police at protests.

The proposed Senate bill, The Safeguarding the Homeland from the Threats Posed by Unmanned Aircraft Systems Act, has the worthwhile goal of protecting critical infrastructure, like power stations, from attacks by drones. The problem? It doesn’t take into account the way reporters use drones to gather information for the public. That’s why Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) joined a letter on behalf of civil society organizations led by the Center for Democracy & Technology opposing the bill. (The full letter is embedded below.)

The measure would give federal and local governments the power to track, intercept, and even damage or destroy drones if they believe the unmanned aircraft pose a threat. This sounds reasonable, until you know that the government has used made-up “safety concerns” in the past to abuse its authority over the airspace and suppress free speech.

For example, in 2014, authorities restricted the airspace around Ferguson, Missouri, during the protests over the police killing of Michael Brown. According to the St. Louis County Police, the restriction was “solely for safety.” But documents obtained by the Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act showed that the real reason for the restriction was to prevent news helicopters from covering the protests.

It doesn’t take much to imagine government officials using their powers under this proposed legislation to chase off or take down drones journalists are using to report news stories that authorities don’t like. As the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker has reported, journalists already face criminal charges, harassment, and seizure of their drones by officials or private security for no good reason. Some states have tried to enact broad bans on the use of drones, including for journalism.

The Senate proposal would empower the government to take this harassment and suppression to another level. Nothing in the measure requires authorities to take into account whether drones are being used for activity protected by the First Amendment, like gathering news. It also doesn’t require the government to try steps like warning a drone off from a restricted area before escalating to harsher measures like destroying it, which, in most cases, would also destroy the images it captured. Journalists who have their drones improperly seized or destroyed have no recourse under the bill to challenge that action.

Troublingly, the proposed law also actively prevents the public from learning about how authorities are using their powers to take action against drones. There’s no requirement for the government to publicly report how often it uses its counter-drone authority or its reasons for doing so. That makes it difficult for journalists to uncover and report on abuses. Even worse, the bill creates new exceptions to state public records laws that could let states keep secret the details of their operation of counter-drone technology.

All of these flaws mean the Senate’s proposed act isn’t ready to become law. Allowing the government to secretly take down drones without regard for the First Amendment is an invitation for abuse. Yes, malicious use of drones is a potential problem that Congress should address, but not at the expense of freedom of the press and the public’s right to know.

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