Law professor Margot Kaminski has a fascinating post detailing how the FAA’s “drone licensing” program could very much violate the First Amendment.

A while back, she’d already expressed concerns about the FAA’s attempt to ban the use of drones, noting that the bans blocked expression in the form of video and photography — because, remember, taking a photograph is a form of expression. But the First Amendment question is even more stark now, thanks to the FAA’s recent decision to let Hollywood use drones for commercial purposes, but no one else. As Kaminski notes, now the FAA is suddenly deciding whose expression is okay and whose isn’t. That’s a classic First Amendment issue.

The problem is that now the FAA appears to be playing favorites. All commercial uses of drones are banned—except for uses by those six companies that obtained an exemption (and by BP, which received an earlier exemption to use drones up in Alaska). There are 45 other applicants for an exemption under section 333, including a self-identified newsgatherer and a realtor who presumably wants to take photographs.

This potentially raises a First Amendment licensing issue. Does Congress’s treatment of these applications violate the First Amendment by putting too much discretion in the hands of government officials, allowing them to privilege one speaker over another? And if this is the case, what are the consequences for any licensing regime that happens to touch on First Amendment-protected activity?

The Supreme Court has long acknowledged that a too-discretionary licensing regime can raise serious First Amendment concerns. This is true even where a complete ban might be permissible. A brief recently filed at the NTSB on behalf of News Media Amici raised the specter of the FAA applying too-vague law in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner, in violation of the First Amendment.

Kaminski admits that this isn’t a completely clear-cut case. The courts would have to determine if the licensing program is “aimed at speech” — specifically the “law must have a close enough nexus to expression, or to conduct commonly associated with expression, to pose a real and substantial threat of the identified censorship risks.” That may be a high bar. Kaminski isn’t sure the courts would go there yet, but notes it’s a possibility. And, in that possibility, it could lead to challenges towards other licensing requirements as well.

If courts paint the definition of a “nexus to expression” with too broad a brush, then licensing schemes touching self-driving cars, smartphones, or the Internet of Things may also have to meet the First Amendment’s more stringent requirements. This potentially puts the First Amendment in tension with good innovation policy. As we attempt to encourage Congress not to rush to conclusions, and encourage agencies to experiment with regulatory schemes for new technologies, discretion may be something we want to afford them, rather than restrict.

Given that we’ve already seen evidence of drone innovation going overseas due to regulations at home, perhaps it might not be such a bad thing to have such regulations face that higher level of scrutiny.


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