US drone ban infringes press freedom

Sixteen major US news organizations came together Tuesday to accuse the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of curtailing freedom of the press by restricting the use of drones.

Unlike other countries, the United States prohibits the use of drones, or unmanned aerial systems (UAS), for commercial purposes, although the FAA grants rare exceptions for government and law enforcement use.

In a brief to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the news organizations -- including The New York Times and The Washington Post -- argued that drones are a First Amendment concern.

Through "a series of threats of administrative sanction," the FAA has "flatly banned" the use of drones for newsgathering purposes, according to the 25-page brief.

"The FAA's position is untenable as it rests on a fundamental misunderstanding about journalism," it added. "News gathering is not a 'business purpose.' It is a First Amendment right."

The brief was filed in the context of the dismissal by an NTSB administrative judge in March of a $10,000 civil penalty that the FAA slapped on European drone entrepreneur Raphael Pirker for a promotional video he made in 2011 over the campus of the University of Virginia.

The FAA alleged that Pirker -- based in Hong Kong and known among drone enthusiasts worldwide as Trappy -- operated his five-pound (2.25 kilogram) Styrofoam flying wing recklessly and without a proper pilot's license.

The FAA is appealing that decision to the full NTSB board, saying it is concerned it "could impact the safe operation of the national airspace system and the safety of the people and property on the ground."

Other news organizations that co-signed the brief include the Associated Press news agency, the Gannett, Hearst, McClatchy and Tribune newspaper groups, and Advance Publications, owner of the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Vogue magazines.

Last month Texas EquuSearch, a non-profit search-and-rescue group, filed a lawsuit in Washington against the FAA after it was ordered by the agency to stop using drones to find missing people.

In February, the FAA said it would miss an end-of-2015 deadline set by Congress for fresh regulations enabling civilian drones to safely share the skies with private and commercial aircraft.

It added that when regulations do come, they would come in stages.

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