In the midst of the violent street protests in Ferguson, Mo., this summer, local police persuaded the Federal Aviation Administration to restrict air space over the confrontations ostensibly out of fear that gunshots might reach an aircraft. In reality, the Associated Press, which has obtained recorded conversations among police and FAA officials, reports that St. Louis County police were trying to limit media coverage of the protests — and of the police response.
That's an appallingly cynical abuse of a traffic-control system designed to ensure air safety. Though it shouldn't come as a surprise given the excessive police targeting of news media on the ground following the Aug. 9 killing of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer. At least eight journalists were arrested or otherwise detained — two rousted as they sat in a restaurant — and police forced members of the media who were covering the protests to keep moving, along with the protesters, at risk of arrest. In one incident, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at a remote television setup.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta told the AP that the "FAA cannot and will never exclusively ban media from covering an event of national significance, and media was never banned from covering the ongoing events in Ferguson in this case." Yet the taped conversations indicate the opposite. FAA officials in St. Louis closed off the air space at the request of St. Louis County police, fully aware that the intent was to limit media access. In one conversation, an FAA manager in Kansas City said that local police "did not care if you ran commercial traffic through this TFR [temporary flight restriction] all day long. They didn't want media in there."
This fits a troubling pattern in which law-enforcement officials nationwide interfere with media and private citizens recording police as they perform their public duties. It is reasonable for police to ask the media to remain out of direct lines of engagement while they do their work. But it is an unconstitutional infringement on the rights of the press to arrest or threaten to arrest reporters and photographers who are simply bearing witness to police actions in public areas. It is also unconstitutional to bar private citizens from filming events that are in plain view.
During the media crackdown in Ferguson, President Obama called on local authorities "to be transparent and open" and said that "police should not be bullying and arresting reporters who are just doing their jobs." But federal aviation officials also shouldn't be working with local police to restrict media access to news events. The FAA's Office of Inspector General needs to investigate the agency's role in this episode, and police officials in St. Louis County must be held accountable for their usurpation of constitutional protections.