In a loss for Texas journalists, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that a state law restricting use of drones does not violate the First Amendment, Courthouse News reports. While flying his drone over a San Marcos, Tex., apartment complex where several people had died from an arson fire in July 2018, San Antonio Express-News multimedia reporter Billy Calzada was approached by a federal agent. The agent told him he was interfering with a federal investigation and called San Marcos police. An officer told Calzada he could be charged with misdemeanors, with penalties of up to 180 days in jail and a $10,000 fine, if he continued to use his drone to report on the fire or if he published any of the photos or footage he had taken with it. She did not ticket Calzada, but the National Press Photographers Association and Texas Press Association, of which Calzada and the Express-News are members, challenged the drone regulations in a federal lawsuit, claiming the laws chilled speech and were vague and overbroad, thereby infringing on the groups' members' First and 14th Amendment rights.
Passed by the legislature in 2013 and amended three times before the plaintiffs filed suit, the regulations criminalize using unmanned aerial drones to film private individuals and property without consent, as well as flying drones within 400 feet over critical infrastructure such as prisons, oil and gas drill sites and large sports venues. A person who is photographed or filmed on their private property can sue the drone operator for civil penalties of $5,000 to $10,000 per violation. Joseph Pappalardo, a freelance journalist and plaintiff in the suit, said he stopped using his drone for assignments in 2017 after a media outlet for which he was working said it wouldn't pay his legal defense if he took images in violation of the state law. He lamented that it had prevented him from taking aerial photos to include with his reporting on Hurricane Harvey, which swamped the Houston area with widespread flooding in August 2017, and it put him at a disadvantage compared with reporters in states that aren't bound by the restrictions. U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman sided with the plaintiffs in a summary judgment order, agreeing with them that the Chapter 423 provisions were unconstitutional. He issued an injunction blocking state and county officials from enforcing them.