Federal judge strikes down Texas drone law

A federal judge ruled that a Texas “Use of Unmanned Aircraft” law violates the First Amendment in a decision that could affect Texas farmer and ranchers both positively and negatively.

The lawsuit was filed by two media organizations and a journalist who claimed the law violated their First Amendment rights.

Texas A&M Agricultural Law Specialist Tiffany Dowell-Lashmet feels the ruling will affect Texas agricultural producers in different ways.

“There are two big provisions in that law,” she said. “One is what they call the surveillance provision that says there are criminal and civil penalties for anyone who uses a drone to conduct surveillance.”

The other provision makes it unlawful to fly a drone over certain facilities, like a feedlot.

The way the ruling will affect Texas farmers and ranchers depends on whether they are using drones or getting watched by one.

“On the one hand, folks that are using drones in their operations may have more protection now,” Dowell-Lashmet said. “If you are using your drone and you capture a picture of someone else on their property, there was the concern that they could bring some kind of action against you.”

That is no longer a concern now that the law has been stricken down, she said.

“On the flip side of that, if you are a landowner who is concerned about people flying drones over your property, there now is a concern because this statute offered some form of protection if someone did that,” she added.

With Texas feedlots and large dairies being targeted by anti-animal agriculture groups and news outlets, there is now a bigger concern that they can be watched by drones without any way to stop them. But Dowell-Lashmet says there are other laws that can help to protect them.

“Remember that this is just one statute,” she said. “There are other laws on the books that deal with privacy rights. But as for this statute being a protection for feedlots in Texas from having drones flying overhead, that protection is gone now.”

With the potential for more drones to fly over agricultural operations, there is the temptation to take the law into your own hands. But Dowell-Lashmet says pulling out your deer rifle should not be an option.

“The drone question I get the most deals with shooting them down,” she said. “Drones are regulated by the FAA, which makes them fall into the category of federally regulated aircraft.”

Penalties for shooting down federally regulated aircraft are high.

“I know they are annoying and may cause a problem but getting the 30-06 out is never going to be the solution to that problem,” she said.

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