Matt Waite: The FAA, the First Amendment, and the World's First Journalism Drone Lab

Matt Waite thought he was going to die a paper reporter, but now he says it looks like the papers are going to die first.

In November of 2011, Waite founded the first journalism drone lab in the world at the University of Nebraska. It was also the first journalism drone lab in the world to get a cease and desist letter from the FAA.

The story that drew the FAA's ire was an October 2012 report Waite and his students put together on that year's drought, one of the worst in the Nebraska's history—meteorologically worse than the Dust Bowl. (Pictured above; read his DIY Drones post about that story here.) Waite and his student crew flew in a rural area, nowhere near airports or populated public land, but because Waite was an employee of a public institution, the FAA demanded a certificate of authorization.

Waite is now on a lecture tour, addressing the state of FAA regulations and how they could impact journalists in the future. He's scheduled lectures at universities across the country, including at San Diego State (March 25) and the University of Texas (April 4).

“Many states are considering laws that restrict drones," he said, "and some of those laws are hostile to the idea of the free press using drones to do journalism.”

For instance, he points out that the Texas state legislature recently passed a bill that made it a crime to distribute photographs of private property taken from above eight feet. The eighteen exemptions to this law apply to industries like oil and gas, ranching and film, but, interestingly, not to broadcast TV. Texas is also one of six states selected by the FAA for UAV testing.

Waite anticipates the next five years will be rough. But because he believes almost all news organizations will soon use UAVs, he’s optimistic the FAA will be smart enough to make any eventual regulations content-neutral, so they don’t invite First Amendment fights.

Citizens have the constitutional right to photograph in public, with no expectation of privacy. The question now is how far in the air does that right extend? So far the courts have ruled that the air is a public place: Not private, but out in the open.

“Ten years from now, we’ll be bored with it,” Waite shrugged. “The same way we look at the first camera phones now.”

To learn more about the Journalism Drone Lab, click here.

Views: 605

Comment by crystal garris on March 22, 2014 at 6:02am
The suprem courts ruled 500 feet + is public property. It's like take a picture of a house from a road. These laws prohibiting this are clearly unconstitutional.


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