One of the primary aims of U.S. government officials who handled a police request for a flight ban over Ferguson, Missouri, last August was to keep news helicopters away from sometimes violent unrest following the shooting of a teenager by a police officer, according recorded conversations obtained by The Associated Press.
Federal Aviation Administration officials and St Louis County police, responded to street protests after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot, say the restrictions were imposed for safety reasons. But the recordings show FAA managers consulting with police as they struggle to craft an order that would keep media away and still allow planes landing at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport to fly through the restricted zone.
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On the afternoon of Aug. 11, the Federal Aviation Administration placed a TFR, or temporary flight restriction, on 37 square miles of airspace. The center of the 3-mile-plus radius was the Ferguson police station. The ban remained in place for nearly two weeks.
In the recordings, which begin early the next morning, officials at the FAA's national command center in Warrenton, Virginia, complain that planes are in danger of violating the restricted zone while landing at the airport. In response, managers at a regional air traffic center in Kansas City work out an agreement with police to issue a new TFR with a less restrictive category in order to accommodate the landings.
The less restrictive category also meant that media were technically allowed into the no-fly zone. But an FAA official explained: "A lot of the time the (lesser category) just keeps the press out anyways. They don't understand the difference."
"It will still keep newspeople out. ... It still keeps all of them out," said another FAA official to the police captain who requested the initial TFR.
"Yeah ... I have no problem with that whatsoever," the captain responded.
Added to the new TFR was language that said only "relief aircraft" under the police department's direction were allowed into the no-fly zone with the exception of planes landing at the airport.
How do we know police that wanted to keep the media out?
An FAA manager says just that in a conversation with another FAA employee.
"The commander at St. Louis County wanted (a TFR that was) 3 (nautical) miles and 8,000 feet and I talked him down to 3 and 5. They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out ... but they were a little concerned of, obviously, anything else that could be going on," said the manager.
Later in the same conversation, the manager told the employee: "They (police) did not care if you ran commercial traffic through this TFR all day long. They didn't want media in there. ... There's no option for a TFR that says, you know, 'OK, everybody but the media is OK.'"
Why this is important
The flight restrictions 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 from 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 no-fly 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.
Did the restriction keep out news helicopters?
KMOV-TV News Director Brian Thouvenot told the AP that his station was prepared at first to legally challenge the flight restrictions, but was later advised that its pilot could fly over the area as long as the helicopter stayed above 3,000 feet. That kept the helicopter and its mounted camera outside the restricted zone, although filming from such a distance, he said, was "less than ideal."
None of the St. Louis stations were advised that media helicopters could enter the airspace even under the lesser restrictions.
What do police and the FAA say?
St. Louis County police said at the time and again Sunday that the TFR was requested in response to shots fired at a police helicopter, adding that a laser was also pointed at the helicopter. Such lasers can blind pilots. But police officials confirmed there was no damage to their helicopter and they were unable to provide an incident report on the shooting. On the tapes, an FAA manager described the helicopter shooting as unconfirmed "rumors."
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a statement his agency "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."
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