Journalist sues Hartford PD in drone use dispute

Posted Feb 19, 2014 by Martin Laine
A TV journalist is suing the Hartford Police Dept. after he was stopped from using a drone to film an accident scene. The dispute may be local, but it comes in the middle of a national debate over the private use of drones in the US.
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Pedro Rivera, a photographer and editor for WFSB-TV in Hartford, filed suit in federal court Tuesday claiming his civil rights were violated when police stopped him from using a drone to film a fatal accident scene on Feb. 1. According to an article in the Hartford Courant, Rivera said he was briefly detained, but not charged or arrested for any crime.
However, the commander of the department’s major crimes division called the station general manager to discuss what happened, according to the Courant article. Rivera was suspended for a week without pay. The station also stated that Rivera was not on assignment, nor does the station own any drones.
In his suit, Rivera alleges the call was made keep the public from seeing how a crime is investigated and to “chill” Rivera’s freedom of speech.
“Officers have the right to stop a person if they feel they are up to no good,” said Rivera’s lawyer Norm Pattis. “They don’t have the right to stop a person if they disagree with what they’re doing, if no law prohibits what they’re doing.”
This is the crux of the problem.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the use of drones for commercial purposes requires a special certificate, which has rarely been granted. Enforcement has been inconsistent, leading to a widespread disregard of the requirement.
In a discussion on the PBS Newshour website last month, an FAA spokesperson asserted that the commercial use of drones, including journalism, was not allowed.
“If you’re using it for any sort of commercial purposes, including journalism, that’s not allowed,” said FAA spokesperson Les Dorr.
However, some of those responding point out that there is no federal legislation that specifically prohibits drone journalism.
The 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act directs the FAA to come up with more up-to-date regulations on the use of drones by 2015. While the use of drones by journalists is still relatively rare, many see how it has a tremendous potential. Several journalism organizations are keeping a close eye on how the new regulations will affect their profession, according to an article on the website of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press.
Any attempt to impose significant restraints on the use of drones by news organizations raises First Amendment questions, along with several other legal and ethical questions.
The debate is sure to sharpen once the new regulations are drafted and open for comment.