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Lawsuit filed against Texas drone law

This ought to be interesting.

By Josh Sorenson, archived on 20 May 2018 at the Wayback Machine, CC0

A federal lawsuit filed Thursday in Austin seeks to strike down Texas laws that restrict what can legally be photographed by drones.

Filed by two journalism organizations and a reporter, the lawsuit argues that a 2013 law places improper limits on news gathering, violating the First Amendment by making it a crime to capture images of private property, or a person on that property, no matter where the drone is flying.

The law bans the use of drones with the “intent to conduct surveillance,” a phrase that is not defined and is vague enough to include most news-gathering activities, allowing for arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement, the lawsuit argued.

“Visual journalists have faced great uncertainty about their permitted use of drones to gather the news in Texas,” forcing some to abandon drones, the least expensive and safest way to capture aerial images of great impact, the lawsuit said.

[…]

Although the law was updated in 2015, 2017 and earlier this year to add exceptions for permissible drone photography — allowing, for example, the professional use by engineers, land surveyors and insurance company employees — similar protections were not extended to journalists, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also challenged a provision added in 2015 that bans all drone use below 400 feet above sports venues, prisons and “critical infrastructure facilities,” including oil fields, pipelines, refineries and animal feedlots.

Because Federal Aviation Administration regulations ban drones from flying above 400 feet, “the no-fly provisions function as a near absolute ban on the use of (drones) in these locations,” the lawsuit argued.

Although lawmakers said restricting drone use over critical facilities was an essential safety provision, the lawsuit argued that the law was intended to suppress potentially embarrassing news coverage, such as environmental problems at oil or chemical plants.

“The no-fly provisions inevitably single out journalists for disfavored treatment by prohibiting the use of drones for news-gathering purposes over facilities of public interest, while broadly excepting governmental and commercial uses of (drones) in these same zones,” the lawsuit said.

Here’s a story about the bill’s passage. You can see a copy of the lawsuit here. One example of the law’s effect cited in the story was an effort to document conditions of a facility that houses immigrant children that drew threats from the San Marcos police. Based on what’s presented here, it sounds to me like the plaintiffs have a good case, but we’ll see what the defense from the state looks like. The Dallas Observer has more.

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