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Mitchell: Look! Up in the Sky! Something New to Regulate!

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s…something to regulate!

It’s a story as old as the nation. Fear of misuse tracks technology like a bloodhound. Got to have some new rules!

State Rep. Ken Morgan, R-Morgantown, threw House Bill 347 into the hopper in January. Its short title was “Drone Prohibition Act” and its purpose was to ban taking pictures from any aircraft that did not have a pilot aboard.

“Why?” you might ask.

Who knows? “Privacy” was cited.

But Mississippi, like most states, already has abundant protections of personal privacy. The federal government has even more. Anyone who intrudes on another’s space or information can be sued, fined, or, in extreme circumstances, jailed.

Don’t fault Rep. Morgan for the bill. It was “standardized.” Every year interest groups of every type draft model laws. Drafts are given to like-minded lawmakers.

Drone photos of people on public land would be OK under HB 347. That was one of many exemptions. But what about a dam break on private land? Or a fire at a mall? No. Sorry. Those photos would be illegal.

In Florida, a drone ban passed. In Mississippi, it died in committee. But it will be back.

Because drones are new. And largely because drones are new.

Never mind that the same images could be shot from airplanes, helicopters, scissor-lifts, ladders or cameras on TV towers. If taken from drones they would be illegal.

The last development to attract such a flurry was the cell phone camera.

The cameras caused consternation for police — when justified and especially when not justified.

Today, it’s a universal reality: Blue lights on, cell phones out. I saw a driver whip out her phone — and almost cause a wreck — as she approached a state trooper who had stopped another motorist down the road.

Some locales — none in Mississippi — reacted by making it illegal to take pictures of police officers at work.

Most of the ordinances and statutes that did pass ran headlong into the First Amendment and were invalidated. In sum, the crucial provision in our society that says anything in a public place can be photographed was vindicated.

Besides, as with the drone situation, there are plenty of longstanding and well-enforced laws on the subject. One is interference with a law enforcement officer in the performance of his or her duty. Another is failure to obey a lawful order of a first responder. Anyone who impedes the job of a policeman or gets in the way of paramedics in order to take a picture needs to be hauled off to jail.

Existing law covers that.

Otherwise, taking pictures of anything anyone can see is almost always protected by the First Amendment. Could be a heroic rescue. Could be a merciless beating. Our nation is well-served by seeing captured images of both.

Back to drones.

The wrinkle with Mississippi (or Florida) weighing in is that the Federal Aviation Administration has the big stick when it comes to anything flown in America’s airspace. The FAA calls drones — which are becoming more powerful and versatile — by the acronym UAS for Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

The FAA correctly sees the potential of UAS being “weaponized” as well as interfering with passenger aircraft, or both.

Likewise, however, there are a lot of “good” uses. For instance, spot spraying pesticides where needed in farm fields instead of broadcasting. Mississippi State University has been funded as the national center for research into any and all positive applications. It’s a big feather in Mississippi’s cap.

Generally, though, the FAA is still wondering what the rules should be. A rather silly situation under today’s rules is that a TV station may show unsolicited drone video of an approaching storm or flood if shot by a hobbyist, but may not operate a station-owned drone to capture the same pictures.

The best to hope for is that everyone remember:

1. Just as with cell phone cameras, existing laws already cover a lot of “dangers” that drones are believed to pose. (Banning commercial use of drones is like banning cars because bank robbers use them for getaways.)

2. States really don’t have a dog in the regulatory hunt.

3. The FAA’s purpose is to promote and assure safety in the air, period.

Any use of a drone that threatens air travel, such as near an airport, would correctly be banned.

Otherwise, just because something is new does not mean a sledgehammer response from government is required.

Charlie Mitchell mugshot 2013Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist and assistant dean of Meek School of Journalism and New Media. Write to him at cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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