The Associated Press reported on Sunday that a FAA flight restriction over Ferguson during the height of the protests in August was aimed squarely at keeping the media away from the scene. In recordings obtained by the AP, local law enforcement and the FAA can be heard discussing the real objective of the flight restrictions that were first imposed on August 12th and continued for 12 days. At the time the no-fly zone was put in place, St. Louis County police denied that it was done to keep news helicopters from filming the protests and local law enforcement’s handling of protesters.
When the no-fly zone was first announced on August 12th, three days after the shooting death of Michael Brown, local law enforcement was already drawing harsh criticism for its reaction to protests. Images of tear gas, police carrying assault rifles and armored vehicles roaming the streets of Ferguson had already made national news. With police knowing that they would continue to use an outsized militarized presence to deal with demonstrations in Ferguson, a decision was made to limit what the media could show. Therefore, St. Louis County police requested the FAA to place flight restrictions on a 37-square-mile area directly over Ferguson.
The official reason given by St. Louis County police at the time for the no-fly zone was a concern for safety. The department claimed that an assailant with a firearm on the ground shot at a police helicopter during the protests. However, this was never actually confirmed, and it is quite likely that St. Louis County police made up this story to justify the flight restriction. Police never filed an incident report of the shooting and even the FAA described the shooting as an unconfirmed rumor.
Considering that the FAA will not explicitly ban only media aircraft from a particular area, St. Louis County worked with FAA administrators to find language that would somehow make certain flights acceptable (i.e. police helicopters, aircraft landing at the nearby airport) while excluding news helicopters from entering the area to shoot footage.
“They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out,” said one FAA manager about the St. Louis County Police in a series of recorded telephone conversations obtained by The Associated Press. “But they were a little concerned of, obviously, anything else that could be going on.
At another point, a manager at the FAA’s Kansas City center said 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.”
FAA procedures for defining a no-fly area did not have an option that would accommodate that.
“There is really … no option for a TFR that says, you know, ‘OK, everybody but the media is OK,'” he said. The managers then worked out wording they felt would keep news helicopters out of the controlled zone but not impede other air traffic.
This really does not come as any surprise. When the flight ban was first announced, many figured it was done to keep images of police shooting tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters from making the national news. While journalists were on the ground and filmed a lot of disturbing images from the early days of the protests, footage from the air would have shown how large the police presence truly was in comparison with protesters. However, there is now definitive proof that local law enforcement conspired to illegally exclude the media from documenting what was happening.
Per the AP, the ACLU is seriously considering filing a lawsuit against the St. Louis County police department over a violation of the news media’s First Amendment rights. The Associated Press was able to retain the audio recordings of the phone conversations via a Freedom of Information Act request.
Justin Baragona is the Managing Editor at Politicus Sports as well as Senior Editor at PoliticusUSA. He was a political writer for 411Mania.com before joining PoliticusUSA. Politically, Justin considers himself a liberal but also a realist and pragmatist. Currently, Justin lives in St. Louis, MO and is married. Besides writing, he also runs his own business after spending a number of years in the corporate world. You can follow Justin on Twitter either with his personal handle (@justinbaragona) or the Sports site’s (@PoliticusSports).