JETLaw Note by Ramon Ryan ’21 wins ABA’s 2020 K. William Kolbe Writing Competition

Jan 18, 2021

Ramon Ryan ’21, editor-in-chief of the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment & Technology Law, has won the American Bar Association’s 2020 K. William Kolbe Writing Competition for his Note, “The Fault in Our Stars: Challenging the FCC’s Treatment of Commercial Satellites as Categorically Excluded from Review under the National Environmental Policy Act,” published in the journal last fall.

The Kolbe Award includes a $2,500 cash prize, membership in the ABA’s Infrastructure and Regulated Industries Section, which sponsors the annual writing competition, and free admission and airfare to attend the section’s spring meeting.

Ryan’s prize-winning Note identifies a major issue with the way the Federal Communications Commission treats satellites that concerns astronomers and other scientists. The paper received national publicity even before its publication, with reports appearing in Scientific American, Business Insider, Futurism and other publications. It was recently cited in a legal challenge filed by Viaset, a global communications company, challenging the FCC’s approval of a request by SpaceX to modify the orbits of some satellites in its massive Starlink network, which will ultimately comprise approximately 12,000 satellites.

Ryan chose to research the topic for his Note after learning that the FCC did not require assessments of the environmental impact of commercial satellites before approving their launch, an omission he believes violates the National Environmental Policy Act. “One might assume that the FCC evaluates new commercial satellite projects for their environmental impact, both to comply with NEPA and to avoid scenarios such as a company using mercury as a satellite propellant or permanently altering the aesthetic of the night sky,” Ryan states in his article, “but this assumption would be incorrect.”

In his paper, Ryan recommends that the FCC update its treatment of satellites to include environmental review under NEPA and proposes a process for conducting the reviews.

Ryan started a new student organization, the Space Law Society, during his 1L year. After graduation, he plans to join Bass Berry & Sims in Nashville, practicing with the firm’s government contracts group.

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