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Ferguson's No-Media Zone Extended to the Skies

Sonia Roubini,
ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project
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November 4, 2014

It appears the Federal Aviation Administration may have fallen into the “constitutional sinkhole” that is Ferguson, Missouri.

Earlier this week, the Associated Press released an alarming set of documents revealing the FAA’s decision to approve a no-fly zone over Ferguson – a no-fly zone requested by local police in order to muzzle media coverage of protests in the wake of the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

The FAA allowed commercial traffic to travel freely within this no-fly zone, making clear that the aerial ban singled out the media for unfavorable treatment in direct violation of its First Amendment rights.

The ACLU sent a letter to the FAA today, in protest of its complicity with local Missouri police in obstructing the media’s ability to do its job. As we wrote:

Aerial newsgathering provides a unique and important perspective on breaking news, allowing for coverage that journalists are unable to obtain on the ground. This is particularly true in Ferguson, where in addition to repeat violations of First Amendment rights on the ground, there is extensive evidence of racial profiling, excessive use of force, and an overly militarized police force. The failure to allow press in the airspace above this unfolding national news event risks obscuring potentially unconstitutional police practices involving use of force and detentions, and thus risks preventing the public and advocacy groups from adequately addressing such practices.

Law enforcement officers in Ferguson have repeatedly violated the First Amendment rights of the public, media representatives, and photographers to document the public protest and police reaction following Michael Brown’s killing. Ferguson police systematically ordered protesters to turn off cameras and cell phones recording law enforcement, journalists were arrested by roving SWAT teams, and tear gas canisters were aimed directly at members of the press.

This effectively turned Ferguson into a “speech-free zone” – one that cannot coexist with our constitutional principles. The ACLU demands that the FAA deny future requests to participate in such violations of the First Amendment, and that it take pains to comply with and uphold the principles of our Constitution.

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