Rivera took this photo with his drone. Image: Pedro Rivera
A journalist suspended by his news channel for flying a drone near the scene of a car accident in Connecticut is now planning to sue the Hartford City Police Department for lost wages and additional damages.
Earlier this month, Pedro Rivera made national headlines when he flew his drone above a fatal car accident. He was questioned by Hartford City Police and eventually allowed to leave, but officers with the department called WFSB television, where Rivera works as a photojournalist. WFSB suspended him for a week while police and the station investigated whether he did anything illegal.
Rivera has hired Norm Pattis, a prominent Connecticut lawyer who specializes in civil rights violations, to file the lawsuit, which he said will be filed in Connecticut Monday or Tuesday.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous. I wasn’t charged, I didn’t violate anything. They went after my job,” Rivera said of the police. “I think what happened to me falls in the category of the war on cameras by the police. Whenever the police are videotaped, they try to detain people and confiscate the camera.”
The Federal Aviation Administration is still investigating the case, but because Rivera was flying his drone as a private citizen, not an employee of WFSB, they’ll likely have no recourse. Flying a drone as a hobbyist has always been legal; flying one for commercial purposes might be as well. Plus Rivera says he’s never sold footage to the station.
Journalists are increasingly looking at using drones to cut the cost of taking aerial photography and video. Rivera says he got permission from WFSB to fly as a hobbyist, and says that in the future, cases like his will become more common.
“As long as we’re persistent, I hope in five years that this will be common,” Rivera said.
Two universities, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the University of Missouri, have set up drone journalism programs. The FAA temporarily shut both of them down, and both schools are now pursuing a Certificate of Authorization that would grant them permission to fly as a public entity.
“We decided to pursue a COA since this would at least keep [us] in the mix as far as drone journalism goes,” said Scott Pham, who helped set up the University of Missouri program but has since moved on to work at NBC. “A COA is so restrictive it makes drone journalism as most people think about it completely impossible,” because it restricts operators from flying in populated areas.
Rivera’s case, even if he wins, isn’t likely to spur any sweeping legal changes—the legality of flying drones commercially is still very much up for debate—but it could embolden others who are currently afraid of running afoul of the FAA or law enforcement.
“The act of creating expressive or newsworthy content, including the taking of photographs from public spaces, is protected by the First Amendment regardless of the equipment used,” said Brendan Schulman, a drone lawyer in New York. “Some state legislators who recently have proposed blanket legislation restricting drone photography appear to have overlooked First Amendment considerations. I am surprised that news agencies have not been more proactive about this issue, as important rights are at stake in the regulatory process.”