BY DONNIS BAGGETT
If Santa brought you a spiffy remote-controlled helicopter for Christmas — one capable of taking a camera into the wild blue yonder — you should think twice before snapping a few aerial photos for the next edition of your newspaper.
House Bill 912, passed by the Texas Legislature last session, makes it illegal to use an unmanned aerial vehicle for photographs of people or property without permission ... even if the images are captured inadvertently and aren't the focal point of the picture.
The bill was aimed at discouraging paparazzi and overaggressive law enforcement officials from using drones for intrusive photography or unauthorized surveillance. In the interest of privacy, legislators overwhelmingly voted for the measure. But in doing so, they made it illegal for legitimate media to use this technology for photos that can have immense value to the public.
Drones are safer and cheaper to use than manned aircraft in many circumstances. As a result, they can help the media efficiently and effectively cover major breaking news that has a public safety impact. A dangerous forest fire approaching a populated area, for example. Or a massive pileup on the interstate.
An aerial image provided by an unmanned aerial vehicle could help journalists cover an industrial accident with environmental ramifications, such as a train derailment resulting in a toxic gas leak. Not to mention flash floods, gas explosions and prison lockdowns.
Aerial photos also can allow the public to safely observe other less traumatic but nevertheless newsworthy events. Big public gatherings with traffic headaches such as football games, parades and gubernatorial inaugurations, for example.
Unmanned aircraft could also be used for investigative reporting purposes without violating longstanding traditional legal barriers.
A drone could provide valuable images of an illegal chemical being flushed into a river at an industrial site, for example. The flight path could easily be maintained in public airspace above the river or a nearby road, and therefore the photos would be shot from public property. But under the new law, it would be illegal to shoot those photos without first obtaining permission from the company that owns the private property to be photographed.
So the company that's violating the law by flushing toxic chemicals into the river enjoys what amounts to a permanent injunction against news photos of the activity. And they never even have to hire a lawyer.
Ironically, the new law probably won't deter papparazi, despite the intentions of the Legislature. The $500 fine attached is chicken feed compared to the value of sensational photos on the tabloid journalism market. It's not likely to deter the papparazi from shooting topless photos of a Hollywood starlet celebrating her release from rehab with a margarita in one hand and a joint in the other.
There's another First Amendment angle that didn't get much attention during discussions of HB 912. Section 423.003 of the law appears to prevent a private landowner from using his own remote-controlled aircraft and camera to shoot an aerial photo of his own property ... unless he first gets permission from any neighbors whose land will be in the shot.
So if Farmer Jones wants to use a drone to take an aerial photo of flood damage to the cotton in his South Forty, he needs to get permission from Farmer Smith first, because Farmer Smith's property just across the fence will be in the picture. That's not only a violation of Farmer Jones' First Amendment rights, but of his property rights as well.
HB 912 may have been well-intentioned, but it's an assault on the First Amendment nonetheless — not only for the media, but for private citizens.
Bad bills get passed when legislators act emotionally rather than deliberately. HB 912 is an example of a law of unintended consequences — a bill that's passed to fix one problem but inadvertently makes a mess of something else. Nevertheless, be careful taking pictures with that remote-controlled chopper Santa brought you ... unless he sent along an elf attorney to go with it.