Another day, another outlandish campaign promise from Donald Trump. This time, he threatened to “open up the libel laws” so he can sue the press when they write articles that he doesn’t like. While there is no federal libel law, whatever means Trump uses to fulfill his campaign promise would likely undermine some basic First Amendment protections. You know, part that says, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”
With bulldozing, blustering candidates like Trump, robust protections for the freedom of the press are more important than ever. A strong and capable press corps is a hallmark of a healthy democracy. Just look around the world: Where you find restrictions on the press, you find authoritarian regimes that limit freedom of citizens. In some countries, press organizations are restricted in what they can say. In others, journalists are restricted in their access to social platforms or technological tools.
For all these reasons, it’s important that the multi-stakeholder process, organized by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to develop a set of best practices to regulate the use of drones, recognize that journalists have fundamental protections under the Constitution.
A new technology such as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) doesn’t change the need for a free press. In fact, as ever, the press need to be able to utilize new technologies to continue effectively informing the public. The printing press enabled newspapers to reach mass audiences. The photograph helped reporters paint a more vivid picture. Now, UAS help journalists describe the full impact of a natural disaster or the landscape of a war-torn region. Access to new technologies helps journalists maintain their effectiveness and meet the expectations of the public.
The multi-stakeholder model developed by the NTIA has proved useful in bringing together diverse viewpoints and constituencies to hammer out agreements on thorny public policy issues. That said, journalists using drones to inform the public is very different from Amazon using drones to deliver packages. The Constitution recognizes the difference. The courts have recognized the difference. Because the NTIA group’s final product could be used as a framework for legislation at the state or federal level, it should also recognize the difference. Journalists need strong protections and access to the latest technology in order to maintain a robust democracy that can withstand any blustering, bulldozing political movement du jour.