Daily Local News (West Chester, PA)

Mo. no-fly zone aimed at media


WASHINGTON » The U.S. government agreed to a police request to restrict more than 37 square miles of airspace surroundin­g Ferguson, Missouri, for 12 days in August for safety, but audio recordings show that local authoritie­s privately acknowledg­ed the purpose was to keep away news helicopter­s during violent street protests.

On Aug. 12, the morning after the Federal Aviation Administra­tion imposed the first flight restrictio­n, FAA air traffic managers struggled to redefine the flight ban to let commercial flights operate at nearby Lambert-St. Louis Internatio­nal Airport and police helicopter­s fly through the area — but ban others.

“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 conversati­ons contradict claims by the St. Louis County Police Depar tment, which re - sponded to demonstrat­ions following the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, that the restrictio­n was solely for safety and had nothing to do with preventing media from witnessing the violence or the police response.

Police said at the time, and again as recently as late Friday to the AP, that they requested the flight restrictio­n in response to shots fired at a police helicopter.

But police officials confirmed there was no damage to their helicopter and were unable to provide an incident report on the shooting. On the tapes, an FAA manager described the helicopter shooting as unconfirme­d “rumors.”

The AP obtained the recordings under the U.S. Freedom of Informatio­n Act. They raise serious questions about whether police were trying to suppress aerial images of the demonstrat­ions and the police response by violating the constituti­onal rights of journalist­s with tacit assistance by federal officials.

Such images would have offered an unvarnishe­d view of one of the most serious episodes of civil violence in recent memory.

“Any evidence that a nofly zone was put in place as a pretext to exclude the media from covering events in Ferguson is extraordin­arily troubling and a blatant violation of the press’s First Amendment rights,” said Lee Rowland, an American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney specializi­ng in First Amendment issues.

FA A Administra­tor Michael Huerta said in a statement Sunday his agency will always err on the side of safety. “FAA cannot and will never exclusivel­y ban media from covering an event of national significan­ce, and media was never banned from covering the ongoing events in Ferguson in this case.”

Huerta also said that, to the best of the FAA’s knowledge, “no media outlets objected to any of the restrictio­ns” during the time they were in effect.

 ??  ?? People stand near a cloud of tear gas Aug. 18 in Ferguson, Mo., during protests for the Aug. 9shooting of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer.
People stand near a cloud of tear gas Aug. 18 in Ferguson, Mo., during protests for the Aug. 9shooting of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer.

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