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A Win for Drone Journalism

Victory in UAV litigation in Texas

figurine of the scales of justice
A Texas judge found it is legal to use drones for newsgathering and to publish their images.

Technological advances often precede a democratic government’s ability to regulate the application and consequences of any given technology. For example, the Wright brothers famously took flight from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. The U.S. Air Commerce Act regulating commercial air traffic wasn’t passed until 1926 – some 23 years later.

lawsuit filed in 2020 in the United States District Court, West Texas, Austin Division (pardon the pun) flies  in the face of that legal timeline.

Steven McGraw, in his capacity as the Director of Texas Department of Public Safety, joined Dwight Mathis, in his official capacity as Chief of the Texas Highway Patrol, and Wes Mau, in his official capacity as District Attorney of Hays County, Texas (aka Defendants), sought to prohibit the National Press Photographers Association, the Texas Press Association, and Joseph Pappalardo (a Texas reporter, certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to operate UAVs in the national airspace), collectively, Plaintiffs, from using UAVs.

The Defendants cited sections of the Texas Government Code which specify “No-Fly Provisions,” including, for example, over a “correctional facility,” a “sports venue,” or a “Critical Infrastructure Facility” at less than 400 feet (approximately 122 meters).

The District Judge, Robert Pittman, granted a summary judgment for Plaintiffs and denied Defendants motion for summary judgment on March 28, 2022. Judge Pittman agreed with the Plaintiffs that applying the No-Fly Provisions of the Texas Government Code would “restrict the First Amendment Right to newsgathering and speech and chill Plaintiffs and their members from using UAVs for certain newsgathering activities.”

While the 2022 decision could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Defendants having lost their case in a summary judgment likely have a challenging vertical lift flight path ahead of them to overturn the decision.

Dave Clarke

Dave Clarke is a California-based writer who is fascinated by the way technology changes our lives.