Guernsey was unconcerned that his bill might impede the work of journalists; if anything, he seemed to welcome the idea. “If I’m hearing about drones being used to gather information from a news standpoint, I would say that would be at the top of my list of concerns,” he told KCTV in Kansas City.
Pham told Guernsey that his drones were flying only over public lands and being used for environmental reporting, rather than investigations of private individuals or businesses. “We’re not out to do gotcha stories,” he told me.
Pham did acknowledge, however, the enormous potential for future journalists and activists to use drones and other aerial means to carry out the kinds of investigations that are becoming increasingly hard to conduct on terra firma.
If adopted, those strategies will inevitably provoke further legal controversy.
Last month, photojournalist George Steinmetz was arrested after taking aerial pictures for National Geographic while paragliding over a Kansas feedlot. Animal-rights activists seized upon the case as an ag-gag arrest, though authorities charged Steinmetz with trespassing for taking off on private property—a charge he denied.
The Steinmetz case may be a foreshadowing of the air wars to come, says the NPPA’s Osterreicher, who has written about the coming legal battles over drone technology.
“Most people who fly in planes don’t need to get permission from the places that they overfly,” Osterreicher told me, previewing the coming collision of drone technology and ag-gag law. “That’s going to be a very big issue in the coming years.”
More battles ahead
For now, the ag-gag movement seems to have lost some momentum.
With the notable exception of Arkansas, each Each of the state bills introduced in 2013 was defeated. In Missouri, Guernsey’s drone bill passed the House but failed to move in the Senate.
And in Utah, the only state where someone has been prosecuted under an ag-gag law, the Amy Meyer case has prompted a legal challenge against the statute by animal-rights organizations.
For those in the
sixfive other states where ag-gag laws remain on the books, Osterreicher said, “you just wait until someone gets challenged under it. But in the meantime it has this chilling effect.”
Few media associations have been as vocal as Osterreicher’s NPPA in responding to the ag-gag movement. But if the movement remains as aggressive as it has been in the last few years, they may have no other choice but to fight back—or at minimum, help their members deal with the pitfalls.
“If enough of these laws pass, we may have to look at guides for navigating these state laws,” IRE’s Horvit said.
In Indiana, the Hoosier State Press Association and its allies were successful in beating back the ag-gag effort this year, but the HSPA expects to see the legislation back on the agenda in 2014 and is preparing to do battle again.
“All press associations should be vigilant about these bills because they do have First Amendment implications,” said Key of the HSPA.
“Not only the press associations, but anybody should be concerned with efforts to stifle debate.”
Correction: The original version of this story said that “ag-gag” legislation passed in Arkansas this year. In fact, the ag-gag language was stripped out of SB 13 before it moved to the governor’s desk in April. CJR regrets the error.
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