On November 2, the Associated Press reported that police in Ferguson, Missouri, requested a no-fly zone to be established over the site of public demonstrations in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing to prevent media helicopters from being able to engage in newsgathering. The police’s intention to block the press from reporting on the protests was clearly established in recorded phone calls between air traffic managers discussing the police request for a no-fly zone. According to the AP, flight restrictions over Ferguson airspace were in place for 12 days in August.

This revelation adds new urgency to PEN’s appeal to the Justice Department to open an investigation into restrictions on press freedoms during the Ferguson protests. Last week PEN released a first-of-its-kind report, Press Freedom Under Fire in Ferguson, documenting 52 alleged violations of freedom of the press by St. Louis-area police. The number and varied nature of the infringements on press freedoms seen in Ferguson strongly suggests that some officers were deliberately trying to prevent the media from documenting the protests and the police response, and the Associated Press story provides further evidence that this was the case. The establishment of a no-fly zone over Ferguson is even more troubling given indications that the Federal Aviation Administration granted the no-fly request in full awareness that the police wanted to use it to block media coverage of the protests.  

PEN urges the Justice Department to immediately begin an investigation into violations of press freedom that took place in the context of the Ferguson protests. This investigation would shed essential light on the factors that drove law enforcement officers in Ferguson to infringe on media freedoms, and on the necessary steps to ensure that in an era of instantaneous transmission, cell phone cameras and citizen journalists, the rights of members of the press and of the public at large are upheld in the context of protests and public assemblies. After completing the investigation, the Justice Department should issue new guidelines for police departments to use in training officers on respect for First Amendment rights during public demonstrations.