Recorded conversations obtained by the Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act have revealed that the no-fly zone implemented in Ferguson, Missouri during protests that followed the death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown were put in place with the sole purpose of keeping news helicopters from covering events. The no-fly zone was implemented for twelve days in August after police began a militarized response to demonstrators.
Sgt. Brian Schellman, who spoke to reporters at the time the no-fly zone was implemented, justified the zone by reporting that shots had been fired at a police helicopter. No incident report was ever filed regarding the alleged shooting at a police helicopter, and there was also no documented damage. Schellman stated to NBC that while police understood that the perception was that the no-fly zone was to get media to leave, it was in fact “for the safety of pilots.” The recordings obtained by the AP prove otherwise and contain conversations between St. Louis County police officers and FAA air traffic controllers who were trying to figure out a way to tweak the flight restrictions so that media aircraft would be grounded but commercial flights taking off and landing at nearby Lambert St. Louis International Airport and police helicopters could still use the airspace.
A direct quote on the recordings obtained by the AP states from an FAA manager states: “They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out.” Another FAA manager states that 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.” As the FAA tried to figure out how to give police what they had asked for, managers can be heard advising that there is no TFR option that allows news helicopters to be banned while other air traffic is still allowed through.
Michael Huerta, an administrator with the FAA spoke to the AP and denied the FAA had any involvement with keeping media out stating, “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.”
Whether or not police were attempting to suppress media from obtaining aerial images of both the demonstrations and the militarized response by police is a serious question because it would not only be violation of the constitutional right to freedom of the press, it would also mean that federal officials colluded in suppressing that right. As the AP states, “Such images would have offered an unvarnished view of one of the most serious episodes of civil violence in recent memory.”
ACLU staff attorney Lee Rowland states, “Any evidence that a no-fly zone was put in place as a pretext to exclude the media from covering events in Ferguson is extraordinarily troubling and a blatant violation of the press’s First Amendment rights.” In addition to the no-fly zone, several reporters were arrested, demonstrators were told they were not allowed to film police and journalists were also tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets.
Amnesty International recently issued a report that says that demonstrators and journalists suffered human rights abuses during the militarized police response. This comes after a federal judge ruled in October that demonstrators’ and journalists’ rights were violated by police who forced them to stay in constant motion in order to not face arrest while demonstrating.