How far should the 1st Amendment protect domestic drones?
Does the “right to know” trump privacy rights? Should journalists exercise restraint in coverage of sensitive topics? At what point does a slavish devotion to the 1st Amendment absolve the press of any moral responsibility?
These are very old questions, but they’ve become particularly relevant in the age of 24/7 citizen journalism and the use of high technology — including UAVs — to report the news. While the FAA tries to map out the regulatory framework for domestic drones, news organizations — including big outlets like Newscorp — are surging ahead with this exciting new technology.
Naturally, this leads to the feds harassing the citizenry over laws that — in most cases — don’t even exist. But sometimes, the media shows such incredible contempt for good taste and moral responsibility that they need a reprimand — like when a freelancer for a Connecticut television station used a drone to record the grisly aftermath of a car crash — mangled bodies and all.
"Here was a dead body still on the scene. We had covered it the best we could," said Lt. Brian Foley, a Hartford police spokesman. "You don't want the family to see that."
And that’s where even the most fervent advocates of the 1st Amendment — most of them, anyway — believe a line must be drawn.
Most of us can agree that funerals and aggrieved family members ought to be sacrosanct — hence the overwhelming bipartisan support for the 2006 Respect for America's Fallen Heroes Act, which prohibits protests within 300 feet of any cemetery under control of the National Cemetery Administration from 60 minutes before to 60 minutes after a funeral. A similar edict in 2012 placed restrictions on demonstrations at military funerals.
But what about a citizen’s privacy rights — or lack thereof — in the public square? Do drones, buzzing overhead — constitute harassment? Should news organizations police themselves and exercise the appropriate moral restraint? Or should the feds step in to protect the citizenry?
The Connecticut reporter, an employee of WFSB-TV, wasn’t working at the time of the incident, and the drone is his. But his employers stand to benefit and should assume the appropriate moral responsibility.
The FAA must integrate all UAVs into domestic airspace by 2015, and the feds are currently trying to hash out guidelines for small drones — <55 pounds — to be used commercially. But like most federal initiatives, the integration of domestic drones has become a long, slow trudge through regulatory hell.
Meanwhile, enterprising individuals and news outlets — eager to embrace new technology and gain an edge over the competition — are pushing the moral boundaries of “freedom of the press” (not to mention endangering bystanders with flying metal contraptions and spinning rotors).
At what point should state, local, or federal government step in? Should the media regulate itself, or do drones present an acute public danger? Leave a comment below!