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By Casey Christie / The Californian
By THE WASHINGTON POST
You may have heard about real estate agents calling on the Federal Aviation Administration to allow the use of commercial drones in U.S. airspace. But now some of the nation's largest newspaper companies -- The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Associated Press and Gannett, among others -- are saying the FAA is restricting free speech by not allowing drones to fly.
The news organizations argue that banning the use of drones amounts to a First Amendment violation, according to court documents filed last week in the case of a filmmaker who was fined by the FAA for using a drone to film an ad.
"This overly broad policy," the brief reads, "implemented through a patchwork of regulatory and policy statements and an ad hoc cease-and-desist enforcement process, has an impermissible chilling effect on the First Amendment newsgathering rights of journalists."
The media organizations filed the brief in support of Raphael Pirker, who was fined $10,000 by the agency for using a drone to shoot a commercial at the University of Virginia. A federal judge threw out the FAA's case in March, encouraging drone advocates, but the FAA is continuing to fight.
"The FAA is appealing the decision of an NTSB administrative law judge to the full National Transportation Safety Board, which has the effect of staying the decision until the board rules," the FAA said in a statement. "The agency is concerned that this decision could impact the safe operation of the national airspace system and the safety of people and property on the ground."
NTSB Judge Patrick Geraghty had ruled that drones are "model aircraft" and thus not subject to the FAA's rules on manned aircraft.
News outlets have been eager to use drones in their coverage of events.
"Reports on traffic, hurricanes, wildfires, and crop yields could all be told more safely and cost-effectively with the use of [drones]," they argue in the brief.
The FAA is scheduled to start rolling out rules for commercial drone operators in August, but a recent Government Accountability Office report cast doubts on the agency's ability to meet that deadline.
The FAA generally contacts transgressors and requests them to cease their activities, rather than penalizing them -- unless they're operating aerial vehicles in a reckless manner, in which case sanctions could be meted out.
-- Wire services contributed to this report