Texas law restricting drone use struck down as unconstitutional

A federal court has ruled unconstitutional a Texas law that severely restricts the use of drones, specifically sections restricting images collected by journalists using drones in their reporting.

In his ruling, District Judge Robert Pitman of the Western District of Texas in Austin said elements of the challenged law violated constitutional rights, particularly those covered by the First Amendment. Foremost among these were the restrictions imposed by law on journalists in Texas using drones as tools to gather information and images in their reporting. The decision stems from a case filed in 2019 by the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA), which challenged the legislation before and after it was passed.

Pitman criticized Texas drone law for infringing on users’ freedom to collect and create content protected by the First Amendment, and for defining the reasons for such bans too vaguely and broadly. He specifically challenged Chapter 423 of the Texas Government Code and ordered state police departments to stop enforcing it.

“A person commits an offense if he uses an unmanned aircraft to capture an image of an individual or private property in this state with the intent to monitor the individual or property captured in the image,” says chapter 423, drawing Pitman’s criticism that he was casting a net far too wide and ill-defined to hold.

“Defendants are asking for an improperly narrow understanding of the Constitution that is not supported by law,” Pitman said in his decision. “The process of creating the images finds as much protection in the First Amendment as the images themselves… (and that) in law, the use of drones to document the news by journalists is protected expression and… involves the first amendment.”

The case was based on incidents where two journalists were prevented from using their drones to take photos or videos of news events by authorities citing the law. These included a San Antonio Express-News photographer who was threatened with arrest for flying his UAV to take photos of an area that had been ravaged by a fatal fire.

Jim Hemphill, who represented the plaintiffs in the case, welcomed the decision.

“Judge Pitman delivered an opinion that carefully considers each issue, comprehensively examines precedent, and decisively argues that drone photography is fully protected by the First Amendment as an integral tool of 21st century journalism,” Hemphill said in a report on the decision on the ANPP website. “The challenged Texas laws prohibited the collection of legitimate news that does no harm and unconstitutionally drew distinctions that prohibited journalistic drone photography, but allowed the exact same drone photography when done for other purposes. privileged.”

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