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Getting Free Speech Flying Again in North Carolina

Regular Liberty & Law readers know that the First Amendment protects your right to communicate information to willing customers. In North Carolina, though, this core constitutional principle has flown over the head of at least one government agency. As a result, the North Carolina Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors threatens criminal prosecution of drone operators who simply want to use innovative technology to provide businesses and property owners with information about their own land. In a state famous for its history in flight, drone operators are struggling to get off the ground. 

According to the board, drone operators need a land surveyor license if they provide clients with aerial photographs containing any metadata or other information about coordinates or distances. Or if they take aerial photographs and use software to stitch them together. Or if they take photographs of a building and use software to process them into a 3D digital model. The list goes on. 

Watch more about the case here.

Michael Jones learned about the board’s position the hard way. He runs a one-man photography and videography business in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Around five years ago, he recognized drones’ extraordinary potential to capture images and information. So he incorporated drones into his business. 

Michael’s services included what he calls “mapping.” For example, if a property management company wanted weekly aerial shots of its land, Michael would send out his drone, photograph the property piece by piece, and use software to stitch the pictures together to form a comprehensive aerial image. Other times, he would work with real estate agents to take aerial photos of clients’ land for marketing purposes.

Businesses in North Carolina saw these offerings as valuable, cutting-edge services. The surveying board saw things differently. In 2018, it sent Michael a letter informing him that he and his business were under investigation for practicing land surveying without a license.

At first, Michael thought the investigation was a misunderstanding. As he told the board, he has never offered to perform what most of us would think of as “surveying.” He has never established legal property boundaries, placed survey markers, or claimed his images were legally authoritative. The board told him that none of that mattered. Unless Michael “came into compliance,” it warned, he’d face a civil injunction and even criminal charges. And Michael’s experience is far from unique: The board has sent similar cease-and-desist warnings to half a dozen drone operators in North Carolina.

Now Michael is fighting back. He’s teamed up with IJ to file a First Amendment challenge to North Carolina’s surveying law. Drone technology may be new, but the principles at stake are as old as the nation itself. Photographers like Michael want to use drones to create images and information for willing customers. That’s speech, and it’s protected by the Constitution. With IJ’s help, Michael is fighting to get his business back in the air and to help other entrepreneurs with innovative ideas soar in the Tar Heel State.

James T. Knight II is an IJ Law & Liberty Fellow.

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