Our Opinion: Regulators wage a losing battle with drone pilots | The Wilson Times
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Our Opinion: Regulators wage a losing battle with drone pilots

Posted on April 8, 2021


Dave DiFilippo cartoon

Wilson city employees used drones to pinpoint stormwater system blockages. The Wilson Economic Development Council relied on the machines to showcase our city as a destination for new industries. And freelance photographers dispatched drones to document the BB&T towers’ implosion in December.

But if the N.C. Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors is on the level, these diverse uses of unmanned aerial vehicles are all against the law.

The panel is blanketing North Carolina drone photographers with ominous warning letters that claim they’re “practicing or offering to practice surveying without a license,” according to Michael Jones, a Goldsboro-based photographer, videographer and drone pilot.

Jones received one of the letters, which threatens civil and criminal penalties. Commercial drone operators are accused of masquerading as land surveyors, licensed professionals over whom the Board of Examiners has jurisdiction. 

That’s a preposterous claim, and it would be laughable if state officials weren’t abusing their power to intimidate drone pilots who’ve done nothing wrong.

Fortunately, Jones is fighting back. He’s suing the examiners’ board with help from the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm. Photographs and video recordings are a form of free speech, a right the First Amendment guarantees to land surveyors, professional photographers and hobbyists alike.

“Small-business drone companies aren’t creating maps for the purpose of defining legal property boundaries,” Jones and IJ attorney Sam Gedge wrote in a guest column for the Carolina Journal newspaper. “They’re creating and communicating photos and information. It’s speech, pure and simple. In fact, much of it is similar to what you can find on Google Maps.”

While the regulatory board is targeting drone photographers who offer their services for hire, its sweeping claims also implicate state and local governments that send drones skyward to document land conditions.

N.C. General Statute 89C-2 says it’s unlawful for “any person” to practice engineering or land surveying without a license. There’s no exception for city, county, state or federal employees.

“The right to engage in the practice of engineering or land surveying is a personal right, based on the qualifications of the person as evidenced by the person’s certificate of licensure, which shall not be transferable,” the statute reads.

If regulators believe their broad interpretation of surveying is valid, why pick on small business owners and leave out, say, the city of Wilson? Or the N.C. Department of Transportation, which touts its drone use in official press releases?

Because land surveyors view drone photographers as competition, of course, and they’d rather scare competitors away than differentiate the technical services they offer from ordinary photography and videography. The board is less eager to stick its snout into other government agencies’ affairs.

Overreach and abuse of discretion are par for the course in North Carolina, whose 58 occupational licensing boards oversee at least 181 professions — a whopping 22% of the state’s workforce.

These boards’ track record of business interference is long and unsuccessful. In 2010, the Federal Trade Commission sued the N.C. State Board of Dental Examiners for trying to stop non-dentists from offering cosmetic teeth-whitening treatments. The board claimed immunity from antitrust law and lost at every juncture of the case, which ended with a 6-3 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2015.

If the N.C. Board of Examiners for Engineers and Surveyors tries to defend its indefensible conduct, we predict the same result — resounding defeat. Drone photographers will ultimately prevail.

Meanwhile, legislators should begin paring down the list of occupations that require state permission slips. Regulation may be warranted for lawyers, doctors, nurses and teachers, but extending that premise to auctioneers, African hair braiders, alarm system installers and locksmiths is overkill.

“North Carolina licenses three times as many occupations as South Carolina, twice as many as Virginia, and is also the 17th most restrictive state for lower-income occupations,” according to the John Locke Foundation.

Occupational licensing boards serve as a barrier to entry that limits consumer choice, offsetting their public benefits of consumer protection and dispute resolution. Given half a chance, they’ll stretch their authority beyond its lawful scope in the name of protectionism. The engineers’ and surveyors’ board provides yet another glaring example.   

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