Photographers Testify Against Texas Proposed Limits On Unmanned Aerial Photos

Mar 27, 2013 Advocacy
Guy Reynolds of The Dallas Morning News testifies about a bill that would criminalize photography taken with UAVs, in front of the Texas House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence at 3:30 am, Wednesday, March 27, 2013. Reynolds waited more than 16 hours for the opportunity to testify. NPPA is opposed to the bill and is working with legislators on it. Photograph by Alicia Wagner Calzada
Guy Reynolds of The Dallas Morning News testifies about a bill that would criminalize photography taken with UAVs, in front of the Texas House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence at 3:30 am, Wednesday, March 27, 2013. Reynolds waited more than 16 hours for the opportunity to testify. NPPA is opposed to the bill and is working with legislators on it. Photograph by Alicia Wagner Calzada

AUSTIN, TX (March 27, 2013) – In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, NPPA members testified in front of a Texas House Committee against a bill that would make photography with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) subject to criminal and civil penalties.

A photographer would be guilty of a Class C Misdemeanor and subject to a $1,000 civil penalty for each image in violation of the statute is HB 912 becomes law.

After waiting more than 16 hours for the opportunity to testify, Guy Reynolds, a photography editor for The Dallas Morning News, testified about an important news story from the Dallas area that used UAV technology. In late 2011, a citizen was shooting aerial photographs using a remote-controlled airplane at a low altitude. When he looked at his pictures he noticed blood running in the Trinity River. Local and state authorities confirmed that untreated pig blood was being released into the river from a plant. The discovery led to an 18-count indictment of the company and two of its executives. 

Reynolds explained that if the bill were law at the time, the citizen who blew the whistle on them would be criminally liable. In addition, Reynolds would be subject to a civil lawsuit. Likewise, The Dallas Morning News and the area television stations that used the images would have been subject to expensive civil liability. 

William Luther of the San Antonio Express-News submitted written testimony in which he discussed devastating wildfires he covered in 2011 via helicopter. 

“Those images came at a price,” Luther wrote. “The helicopter pilot and I had to put ourselves in harm’s way. The Texas Forest Service had to use manpower and resources track us while we were flying in the area. Aerial fire crews had to avoid us. And quite honestly, The Express-News had to spend thousands of dollars on flight time so I could make those historic photos.” He explained that “virtually all of those costs could be eliminated using radio-controlled aircraft flying far below and out of the way of Forest Service aircrews.”

NPPA attorney Alicia Calzada expressed to the committee NPPA’s First Amendment concerns.

“HB 912 is content based,” she said. “Imposing criminal and civil liability based on content is subject to the most exacting scrutiny, and requires the state to show that the regulation is needed to serve a compelling state interest, and that it is narrowly tailored to serve that interest.” Calzada pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that if a newspaper obtains information on a matter of public concern lawfully, they cannot be punished. 

The committee left the bill pending and NPPA has been communicating with its author, Rep. Lance Gooden, who promised to address NPPA’s concerns in a revision.

HB 912 is one of four bills in Texas that the NPPA is monitoring. The other three are: 

• SB 897 which would enable photographers to sue police officers who arrest them for doing nothing more than taking pictures. The bill clarifies that you have a right to record police officers, and it creates a right to sue a police officer who arrests someone for doing nothing more than taking pictures. It also clarifies that certain laws, such as “failure to obey a lawful order” do not apply if the only order is to stop taking pictures.
• HB 2434 which would create liability for taking certain kinds of hunting and fishing photos without the permission of the landowner. 
• HB 2185 which would create liability for taking a photo or video of someone in a non-public place without the other person’s consent and with “intent to harm the other person.”