The latest salvo in the agriculture industry’s fight against media coverage has been fired at the use of drones.
Rep. Casey Guernsey, a Missouri Republican, has proposed a house bill to limit drone use to law enforcement agencies that have warrants.
The bill proposes that, “No person, entity, or state agency shall use a drone or other unmanned aircraft to conduct surveillance of any individual, property owned by an individual, farm, or agricultural industry without the consent of that individual, property owner, farm or agricultural industry.”
Idaho also is trying to pass legislation that specifically protects farms and agricultural land from being surveyed by drones, also known as “unmanned aerial vehicles,” or UAVs.
The drones are now being used and considered for use by law enforcement, precision agriculture and by journalists, but those worried about overall privacy are questioning the widespread use of drones.
“Where this gets a little complicated is in terms of private property and privacy rights,” said Matt Waite, a professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska who teaches a class on drones in journalism.
Waite explained that privacy rights extend up to 400 feet in the air. But above that, it’s considered national airspace.
“It's at that point that the sky becomes like a public street. If you can see it from that altitude, it's fine,” he said, as long as the person operating the UAV has a permit from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Under federal law, commercial use of UAVs is illegal. But the latest concern for the agriculture industry is the use of drones by journalists and activists groups.
Groups in Australia have been experimenting with drones for news gathering for a few years. Drone journalism research projects are currently underway at the University of Nebraska, University of Missouri and the University of Illinois.
Lawmakers and agriculture producers in Missouri cite the right to privacy as a reason to block drone use. Monitoring livestock production facilities is often mentioned by producers as a top concern.
“Although restrictions are often framed as privacy or anti-trespassing measures, the truth is that other laws on the books already address these needs,” said Ken Paulson, the president and chief executive officer of the First Amendment Center. “ It’s highly problematic when a bill is designed to limit the ability of citizens to share information about consumer matters with others.”
Those favoring the use of drones cite the advantages of monitoring illegal activities in the rural countryside, such as puppy mills, meth labs, and marijuana in field crops.
While some farmers may be opposed to drone surveillance of their land, others see the use of UAVs as beneficial to precision agriculture as a means to monitor water, soil quality and plant health.
“They're kind of speaking out of both sides of their mouth here,” said Waite. "They're against government environmental regulators having them, and they’re very concerned about animal rights activists having them. But on the same token, the largest market for UAVs is using them for precision farming.”
Farm protection and agriculture disparagement laws, along with regulations regarding drone usage over agriculture areas, have significant First Amendment and journalism implications. The long-term effectiveness of these laws, and other attempts by agribusiness to shield modern production practices, will most likely be decided by the courts.
Drone legislation is currently moving through 30 states to establish rules for domestic drone use: 19 states have introduced bills, 10 have passed the Senate or House or have proposals being passed, and Virginia is the only state to have two bills passed and on the governor’s desk.
"Is this a new ethical problem, or is this an old ethical problem with new tools?" said Waite, who believes in this case, it is the latter.
“You have to think of them as what they are: They're a tool used to report things. And that's true for any industry, not just journalism.”