In the early days of this summer’s protests over the death of Michael Brown, the Federal Aviation Administration agreed to enforce a 37-square-mile no-fly zone over Ferguson, Missouri. This was done at the request of the St. Louis Police Department, which claimed that shots had been fired at one of its helicopters. (That claim was never substantiated.) Of course, the supposed safety ban on flights in the area had the side effect of preventing news helicopters from filming the clashes between cops and demonstrators from above. Now an Associated Press report seems to show that the no-fly zone’s true purpose was to keep the press away, and local FAA officials knew it.
The Ferguson flight restriction, first imposed on August 12, originally applied to all aircraft flying at up to 5,000 feet. However, officials at the FAA’s command center in Warrenton, Virginia, soon complained that the no-fly zone was interfering with commercial planes coming in and out of the nearby Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. From the AP:
The Kansas City FAA manager then asked a St. Louis County police official if the restrictions could be lessened so nearby commercial flights wouldn’t be affected. The new order allows “aircraft on final (approach) there at St. Louis. It will still keep news people out. … The only way people will get in there is if they give them permission in there anyway so they, with the (lesser restriction), it still keeps all of them out.”
“Yeah,” replied the police official. “I have no problem with that whatsoever.”
Subsequent conversations between FAA employees indicated that they understood exactly what the St. Louis police were hoping to accomplish with the no-fly zone:
“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.
The no-fly zone was then lowered to 3,000 feet to accommodate the commercial flights. The AP notes that under federal rules, the new restriction should not have applied to aircraft “carrying properly accredited news representatives.” But the FAA’s announcement made no mention of that: “Only relief aircraft operations under direction of St. Louis County Police Department are authorized in the airspace,” it said. “Aircraft landing and departing St. Louis Lambert Airport are exempt.”
The FAA enforced the no-fly zone until August 22. According to the AP, a St. Louis police captain tried to get it extended just before Brown’s funeral and the day Darren Wilson was identified as the officer who shot the teenager because those events were expected to “bring out the emotions.”
The AP’s report on the no-fly zone is hardly the first time that the police have been accused of violating the First Amendment rights of reporters trying to cover the events in Ferguson, but the apparent participation of the federal officials at the FAA makes this one especially troubling.