During the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting of Michael Brown, the FAA allowed police to restrict over 37 square miles of airspace for nearly two weeks in August for safety reasons. The reason, however, had nothing to do with keeping the peace. Audio recording obtained by the AP reveal that local authorities were trying to prevent news helicopters from covering filming the demonstrations.
"They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out," said one FAA manager about the St. Louis County Police Department 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."
The conversations contradict claims by the St. Louis County police, which said the restrictions had nothing to do with limiting the press and instead were imposed because of gunshots fired at a police helicopter.
But county police officials told the AP recently there was no damage to their helicopter, and they were unable to provide a report on the shooting. On the tapes, an FAA manager described reports of 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. The recordings also offer a rare look into government operations, especially as local public-records requests to Ferguson officials by the AP and other news organizations were denied or met with high processing fees.
News helicopters weren't totally banned from the area, they were allowed to fly over as long as they were more than 3,000 feet high, too high for the news cameras to get a good shot at the demonstrations.
The flight restrictions remained in place until Aug. 22, FAA records show. A police captain wanted it extended when officials were set to identify Wilson by name as the officer who shot Brown and because Brown's funeral would "bring out the emotions," the recordings show.
"We just don't know what to expect," he told the FAA. "We're monitoring that. So, last night we shot a lot of tear gas, we had a lot of shots fired into the air again. It did quiet down after midnight, but with that ... we don't know when that's going to erupt."
One FAA official at the agency's command center asked the Kansas City manager in charge whether the restrictions were really about safety. "So are (the police) protecting aircraft from small-arms fire or something?" he asked. "Or do they think they're just going to keep the press out of there, which they can't do.
If the no fly zone was set up to keep the media out as indicated by the recordings, it was a clear violation of the First Amendment freedom of the press guarantee.