As various US states wrestle with the implications of ubiquitous unmanned aerial vehicles, Texas legislators have passed a bill banning drones for many private citizens while granting exceptions for law enforcement, utilities, and even real estate companies.
The Texas Privacy Act makes it a misdemeanor to use aerial drones to film any person or private property "with the intent to conduct surveillance," but it also carves out a whopping 40 exemptions. According to the bill's text, law enforcement officers will have wide authority to use surveillance drones both with and without a warrant, in order to investigate crime scenes or pursue individuals when police have "reasonable suspicion" that they have committed a crime — among a host of other circumstances. The bill also has exemptions for oil and electrical companies, real estate agents using drones for "marketing purposes," educational institutions, and areas within 25 miles of the Mexican border.
Media organizations say the ban is at odds with First Amendment rights
But private citizens, journalists, and other organizations wouldn't get the same treatment. If a person or company chose to sue, the bill would impose a $500 fine unless the drone's owner agrees to destroy the images it captured — though the plaintiff would also need to prove that the owner acted in malice. That's potentially bad news for investigative reporters and activist organizations like PETA — the latter had previously announced its intent to use drones to expose animal cruelty. Legislators in Illinois have also passed a drone bill this week, which would stop private citizens from using drones to "interfere" with another person's hunting or fishing.
Earlier this month, the Texas bill received sharp criticism from an unlikely coalition of groups, including the Motion Picture Association of America and the National Press Photographers Association, who said that the ban on citizen drones is at odds with First Amendment rights. "A journalist (or ordinary citizen) monitoring an environmental spill, documenting the aftermath of a disaster or simply monitoring traffic conditions could easily be committing a crime under this bill. This would create an enormous burden on speech that is clearly constitutionally protected," the groups wrote in a letter.
The bill has passed in both the state House and Senate, and currently awaits Governor Rick Perry's signature.