A few weeks ago, after the statue of Last Chance Joe was moved from in front of the Sparks Nugget to the Sparks Heritage Museum, we learned that a young aspiring photographer named Donald Abbott had shot the move with a drone. We contacted him and offered to run one of his overhead photos of Joe at his new home. We ran it in our Dec. 11, 2014, edition.
Here’s something that none of our readers likely knew at the time. It was legal for Mr. Abbott to take the photo we published. It would have been illegal for anyone employed by this newspaper to do so.
In a peculiarity of evolving federal law, the Federal Aviation Administration has decreed that anyone can fly civilian drones at low levels unless they are doing it for a profit purpose. Thus, as long as they follow regulations, individuals on a lark can do it, but businesses cannot. What is likely to be a very useful information gathering tool is being grounded by an issue—profit—that should not be a concern.
We get that this is a consequence of the pace of modern technology, and of the difficulty of keeping up. In the early years of the internet, Congress avoided legislating in the field because its members—like the rest of the nation—didn’t know enough. That was a laudable caution.
Nevertheless, it is disconcerting to have First Amendment rights being determined by in the halls of an air service agency. Media is no longer just newspapers and broadcasting. Hundreds of thousands of people are now operating their own online newsletters, blogs, message boards, videos, what have you—and making, if not always a living, at least supplementary income. The notion that the rights of such a large swath of citizens across the United States are suspended for the foreseeable future is troubling. Abbott has started a photography business. Why should one of his best tools be stymied in this fashion?
“As with many new technologies that are unchecked and untried, our society can have a reflexive compulsion to reach for a straitjacket before letting them loose,” the Columbia Journalism Review recently observed. “Bind it until we understand it. That’s what we are doing now with civilian drones. And what’s particularly odd is that the Federal Aviation Administration is, at the moment, the government agency that has turned itself into the arbiter of whether journalists should be allowed to use drones in their reporting. In other words, an agency whose expertise lies in aeronautics and cockpit procedures is now the central player in an issue that ought to be about the first amendment. Something’s not right.”
There are no doubt going to be legitimate grounds for regulating civilian drone use, but they should have something to do with relevant concerns such as safety, not whether the use to which the drones are being put is profitable.
We hope the members of the Nevada congressional delegation are paying attention to this issue, because could well be in their laps sooner or later.