Drone journalism growing faster than the FAA’s ability to stop it

While it considers new regulations on quadcopters, the Federal Aviation Administration is taking on a role of the 2014 version of Prohibition’s revenuers.

On Monday, for example, I posted this video, shot in the immediate aftermath of the tornado in Arkansas.

It presented no public safety issue and, arguably, provided an important assessment of the situation for anyone, including public safety agencies, who needed it.

But the FAA is on the hunt for the ne’er-do-well who violated the agency’s ban on drones, Forbes reports. A spokeswoman says the agency is “looking into” Brian Emfinger, who used the drone to provide coverage to a local TV station.

If the FAA chooses to pursue an enforcement action against Emfinger or other journalists, those journalists may face up to a $10,000 fine. Pursuing journalists will likely raise immediate First Amendment challenges, and may be a losing strategy for the agency as many news organizations, lawyers (myself included), and other drone enthusiasts would be united in opposition to the agency’s efforts to enforce non-existent rules.

In February of this year, Pedro Rivera, a photographer and drone journalist in Connecticut, filed a Federal lawsuit directed against a police department, rather than the FAA. In that suit he alleged that his First Amendment right to monitor police was infringed when police ordered him to cease videotaping their activity.

As drone technology continues to spread into the hands of more journalists we can expect to see more questions raised about how far the FAA’s authority extends, and what happens when that claimed authority intersects with First Amendment rights.

“If the FAA wants to regulate news and information gathering, it should act quickly to promulgate rules rather than arbitrarily grounding all unmanned systems,” writes Gregory S. McNeal, a professor specializing in law and public policy.