Flight restrictions were targeted to keep media from covering Ferguson protests

Map by the FAA, showing the size and location of the temporary flight restrictions above Ferguson, Missouri.

Map by the FAA, showing the size and location of the temporary flight restrictions above Ferguson, Missouri.

For twelve days in August, as protesters rallied on the streets and racial tensions grew, 37 square miles of airspace above Ferguson, Missouri was blocked off to all non-police aircraft.

Outwardly, St. Louis County Police claimed this was to make sure police helicopters could navigate freely. But recorded telephone conversations obtained by the Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) reveal that this airspace was, in fact, blocked off to prevent news helicopters from recording the protests.

From the AP report:

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.

Before requesting that the Federal Aviation Administration close off the airspace above Ferguson, St. Louis County Police made claims to news agencies that their police helicopters had been fired upon "multiple times." At the time, a spokesperson for the FAA would not elaborate to TIME on the purpose of the no-fly zone, also known as a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR):

The order says the flight restrictions were put in place “to provide a safe environment for law enforcement activities.” The FAA would not elaborate further on the reason for the St. Louis County Police Department’s request. “If you want it, file a FOIA,” FAA Spokesperson Elizabeth Cory told TIME, in reference to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The investigation by the Associated Press confirmed that no damage was reported to police helicopters, however, and that FAA officials worked to craft the restrictions so as only to prevent news helicopters from accessing the area.

A news director at St. Louis television station KMOV told the AP that it was originally preparing to challenge the restrictions, and was later told that it could fly a news helicopter above Ferguson so long as its altitude exceeded 3,000 feet. At that altitude, the news director, Brian Thouvenot, said the camera's view of the protests would be compromised.

This is not the first time the FAA has generated controversy by denying news helicopters access to newsworthy locations. The agency has been criticized for issuing TFRs above oil spills, such as the 2013 spill in Arkansas, and the 2010 Deep Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta wrote in a statement that "media was never banned from covering the ongoing events in Ferguson in this case."

Posted on November 3, 2014 .