Critical Thinking: Does the FAA’s ban on drone journalism violate the First Amendment?

Critical Thinking: Does the FAA's ban on drone journalism violate the First Amendment?

The Federal Aviation Administration has banned journalists from using drones in their work due to safety and privacy concerns, yet commercial use and hobbyists are sometimes exempt. Do you agree with the FAA’s concerns or do you think the ban violates the First Amendment?

William Channell, 22, senior, Bowling Green (Ohio) State University
Channell is a senior print journalism major. He is the incoming managing editor of the student newspaper, The BG News, as well as the incoming president of the student chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He has also worked as a stringer for the Weekly Record Herald, a newspaper in Tipp City, Ohio, and has interned with the Marysville Journal-Tribune in Marysville, Ohio.

The First Amendment of the United States protects the right of the individual to gather and publish information, though it is not always clear as to whether the amendment covers the means with which that information is gathered. As drone technology is relatively new, there are likely to be a few kinks to work out in terms of the legislation of their use. I do not believe the ban expressly violates the First Amendment, though ethically it does not seem sound.

The FAA’s job is not to mandate journalistic methods. Preventing drones from entering federal or private airspace is understandable, but making laws in regards to what journalists are allowed to do in public airspace should generally be avoided. In that way the actual ban is not unconstitutional, but the reasons could be. This could be an example of an agency reaching beyond its intended boundaries.

The law creates the sort of double standard that the American government claims to want to prevent. A civilian is, in theory, allowed to post online a photo taken with a drone, which can be viewed by millions of people. A journalist, however, cannot print the same photo in a newspaper, which could be viewed by a substantially fewer number of readers. Additionally, a photo taken by a journalist from the top of a building is legal, but the same photo taken with a drone is rendered illegal. This seems arbitrary and can be frustrating to journalists in certain situations.

The number of contexts in which drones can be used is huge and fluid, which is inherently incompatible with the rigidity of law. The arbitrary nature of the current ban could lead to the eventual direct infringement of the First Amendment rights of journalists. However, I believe it will be more a matter of a general feeling out the nature of these devices, and the legislation needed to monitor them.

Clarissa Williams, 39, president and senior group publisher (Springfield, Ill.) State Journal-Register, Lincoln Courier, SJR Media Co. (GateHouse Media)
Williams took the helm as president and publisher in January 2014.  Previously, she was the group publisher of GateHouse Media Inc.’s Delaware group.  Williams has spent
more than two decades in the newspaper industry, serving in leadership roles in Daytona Beach Florida at Halifax Media Group, Landmark Community Newspapers in Kentucky, the Register-News in Mount Vernon, Ill., and the Times-Leader in McLeansboro, Ill.

The rights offered to the press through the First Amendment include publishing news, opinions and information—whether through print or online—without government interference. I agree safety regulations for drones need to be followed; however, journalists already follow a code of ethics. Drone journalism gives readers a distinct view of situations, while offering journalists a resource and avenue to gather and disseminate the news.

Journalists already routinely use technologies that once were new or evolving, such as digital cameras, telephoto lenses, video and GoPro cameras; the drone is no exception.  There are safety issues, but nonetheless, we have regulations in place set forth by the FAA. 

I agree with the code of ethics at, which, according to the website, should be viewed “as a layer of additional ethical considerations atop the traditional professional and ethical expectations of a journalist in the 21st century.”

Under a 1981 FAA agreement, anyone can walk into a hobby store and purchase a drone, albeit with tight regulations. Why would a professionally trained journalist be banned from utilizing a drone to capture history? The legal and ethical issues regarding the use of drones will continue to be at the forefront of privacy and safety concerns. But the First Amendment doesn’t read “freedom of the press—except for drones.”

I see drones as an excellent resource for my newsroom and would be in favor of equipping my newsroom with a drone and providing journalists with the training required to use one properly. Coverage would be elevated, especially in extreme situations.

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One thought on “Critical Thinking: Does the FAA’s ban on drone journalism violate the First Amendment?

  • September 17, 2014 at 5:19 pm

    In a word, Yes. Oh, and absolutely, unquestionably, and certainly.


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