When protests erupted this summer in Ferguson, MO, they came with a strange caveat: in the name of public safety, no one was allowed to operate drones or helicopers within city limits. That made it effectively impossible to film aerial footage as the protests unfolded. But a new report from the Associated Press suggests public safety had little to do with the ban: keeping aerial footage off the news was the whole point. Police officers in Ferguson were worried about aircrafts operated by the media, and what they might see if they flew over the town. An FAA manager in Kansas City told the AP that the police "did not care if you ran commercial traffic through this TFR [no-fly zone] all day long. They didn't want media in there."
The FAA has found itself in new political territory as it stakes out the ground rules for civilian drones, but this is the most controversial stance the agency has taken so far, and raises real questions about the standard for restricting drone flights. The FAA's restriction did real damage to the public interest. Aerial footage would have been crucial in determining the extent of police violence and looting during the crucial days of the protest. It would have been invaluable for today's pundits and tomorrow's historians, and because of the no-fly order, we'll simply never have access to it. In light of today's report, the reasons behind the order now seem legally indefensible, but the damage is already done.