Amid public protests in the city of Ferguson, Missouri earlier this year, when local law enforcement officials in August requested a 'temporary flight restriction (TFR)' from the Federal Aviation Administration in the airspace above the St. Louis suburb, they claimed the request was based on safety concerns. However, telephone recordings by police officials obtained by the Associated Press appear to show that the concern was not about safety, but rather focused on restricting media coverage of the events happening on the ground.
"They finally admitted it really was to keep the media out," said one FAA manager about the St. Louis County Police in one of the recorded telephone conversations obtained by a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request submitted by AP.
In another part of the recording, an FAA official said the local police "did not care" if commercial traffic continued in the area, but made it clear "They didn't want media in there."
The community protests in Ferguson resulted from shooting death of an unarmed African-American teenager, Michael Brown, by police officer Darren Wilson. As protests over the shooting grew over subsequent days, the police response also escalated with deployments of heavily-armed riot police employing harsh tactics which garnered national attention and broad criticism.
In response to the police request, the FAA did enact flight restrictions over a three-mile area over Ferguson, making it impossible for television helicopters to cover the events from the air.
According to AP's new exclusive reporting, the recorded calls about the TFR contradict claims made by the St. Louis County Police Department that the request was solely about safety and repeated statements that it had nothing to do with restricting media access to the dramatic interactions between community members, protesters, and police officers.
Police said at the time, and again as recently as late Friday to the AP, that they requested the flight restriction in response to shots fired at a police helicopter.
But police officials confirmed there was no damage to their helicopter and were unable to provide an incident report on the shooting. On the tapes, an FAA manager described 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.
"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 specializing in First Amendment issues.