By Corey Friedman
Lawmakers on a special state panel approved a working draft of guidelines for drone rules and regulations last week. State Rep. Joe Tolson said the House Committee on Unmanned Aircraft Systems’ bill is “a good start,” but will need some tweaking as it advances to the full General Assembly.
The proposed rules have their strong points — civil liberties safeguards that would require law enforcement to obtain a search warrant before conducting drone surveillance in most cases — but there also are some provisions that give us pause.
Drone operators would be required to get a person’s written consent before photographing him or her “for the purpose of publishing or otherwise publicly disseminating the photograph.” That conflicts with a robust body of case law establishing photography in public places as a First Amendment right.
The bill tries to carve out an exception for the news media, citizen journalists and others documenting important matters, but that provision, too, could prove problematic.
“This subdivision shall not apply to newsworthy events or events to which the public is invited,” a passage states.
Government shouldn’t get to define what is and isn’t “newsworthy.” If folks object to the news media and private citizens using drones to take pictures, it would presumably be a judge’s call whether the event had sufficient news value to qualify under the exemption.
Our legislature and judiciary have no business making these decisions. Allowing the state to decide what is and isn’t a news story would go against a core tenet of the First Amendment — that the press is free from government influence.
We live in an age of ever-increasing surveillance, from security cameras at nearly every business and government office to red-light cameras and license plate scanners to GPS-enabled smartphones that can pinpoint our precise location. Folks have good reason to be concerned about their privacy. But setting broad limits on photography would create more problems than it solves.
Lawmakers don’t want drones swooping down from the skies and snapping pictures of people unless those people have given their permission. That instinct can be correctly and narrowly applied to stop drones from trespassing on private property, but as it’s currently written, the bill makes no distinction between hovering over someone’s backyard and cruising above Main Street.
Federal courts have established a right to take photographs in public places. When we’re walking through the city park, driving on state highways or sitting on a bench in the town commons, others don’t need permission to take our picture. North Carolina’s drone regulations fail to take this into account.
Not only could the drone bill restrict photography in public spaces, it also could weaken private-property rights. The rules say it’s OK to take pictures of someone without his or her permission at “events to which the public is invited.”
Well, the public can be invited to a function on private property, and we think it should be left up to property owners, not state lawmakers, whether photography is permitted. As the rule is written, any event open to the general public would be fair game whether the property owners like it or not.
Drones offer the potential for technological advances in agriculture, firefighting, industry and public safety. Farmers and ranchers could use them to monitor crops and flood conditions. Wildfires and natural disasters could be flown over without risking a pilot’s life.
There’s a lot of upside, but there also are a lot of unanswered questions. Rules are needed to keep law enforcement and private drone operators in check. Protecting personal privacy is essential, but weakening residents’ right to document what they see in public is the wrong approach.
We’re glad lawmakers sat down to write the rulebook on drones. But we urge them to go back to the drawing board. The bill in its current form leaves far too much room for interpretation. It may be a good start, but it’s nowhere near finished.
[Note: This originally appeared as an editorial in The Wilson Times.]
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