Government Pays Up To Settle With Traveler Who Was Detained By TSA For Trying To Learn Arabic
from the you-can't-put-a-price-on-freedom,-but-$25,000-is-a-nice-start dept
In 2009, Nick George was arrested in the Philadelphia airport because the TSA seems to equate certain First Amendment activity with terrorism. George, who was flying out to California to start his senior year at Pomona College, was carrying with him two items that caught the screeners’ attention: Arabic-language flash cards and a book critical of the US government. It was as ridiculous as it sounds.
After a half-hour delay at the security line, the supervisor showed up, and things turned from annoying to surreal. After looking at the book and flashcards, the supervisor asked me: “Do you know who did 9/11?” Taken totally aback, I answered: “Osama Bin Laden.” Then she asked me if I knew what language Osama Bin Laden spoke. “Arabic,” I replied. “So do you see why these cards are suspicious?” she finished.
The other “suspicious” item, a book critical of US foreign policy, was written by a former Secretary of Commerce who served under President Reagan — hardly “The Anarchist’s Cookbook.” But it isn’t the TSA’s job to deploy logic or critical thinking. It’s here to pretend the skies are safer with it around. Instead, the TSA brought in the Philly police, who cuffed him in the airport for carrying Osama Bin Laden flashcards and subversive literature.
The police left George cuffed for hours and refused to inform him of its reasons for detaining him. The only police officer to respond to George’s question (“Why am I being held?”) shrugged and flipped his query into a presumption of guilt: “I don’t know. What’d you do?” Between the TSA’s presumption that Arabic = terrorism and the PD’s willingness to continue the ignorant farce, George was stuck in a rights-less limbo. As he points out, there’s an ugliness inherent to the government’s long-running security theater, one that crosses over to the law enforcement agencies who are asked to detain travelers.
It’s that attitude that is so problematic. Even after searching my luggage without probable cause of a crime and finding nothing out of the ordinary, TSA agents and the police felt they had the authority to detain and then arrest me, purely on ignorant assumptions about a language spoken by 295 million people worldwide.
You can’t fix stupid. You can’t even get it to talk to you.
Fortunately, George now has some closure on the 2009 incident. The government has settled George’s lawsuit (filed with the assistance of the ACLU), paying him $25,000 for stripping him of his rights over some foreign language flashcards and a book on US foreign policy. In addition, the settlement [pdf link] includes instructions to be delivered to the Philadelphia Police in hopes of preventing a repeat of this debacle.
The City shall communicate to Philadelphia Police Department officers assigned to the Airport the following:
Investigative detentions may be made only on reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct and any arrest must be based on probable cause. A referral by TSA agents is not grounds for arrest unless an officer makes a judgment of probable cause; similarly, referral by TSA agents is not grounds for detention unless an officer makes a judgment that there is reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct. Any detentions or arrests should be documented on appropriate police paperwork consistent with PPD Directives.
The underlying message is that the US government’s airport security force isn’t a very good judge of threats or illegal behavior. Rather than just take the TSA’s word that a traveler is a potential threat, the police will need to assess the situation on their own and actually come up with something resembling “probable cause” before effecting an arrest.
And, of course, as is the case with nearly every government settlement, the defendants are shelling out tax dollars while taking no responsibility for their actions.
This Stipulation is not, is in no way intended to be, and should not be construed as an admission of liability or fault on the part of the United States, OHS, TSA, DOJ, FBI, the City, or their principals, agents, servants, or employees, including William Rehiel and Edward Richards, Jr., and it is specifically denied that they are liable to Plaintiff.
Oh, but it will be “construed” as an “admission of liability.” If these entities had done no wrong, they certainly had the (nearly limitless) means to continue fighting George in court.
Unfortunately, the lawsuit hasn’t resulted in any mandated guidance directed at the TSA. In fact, it includes a declaration from Sarah Tauber, a deputy in the TSA’s “Threat Assessment Division,” that basically states, “Hey, the police don’t need to arrest everyone we refer to them. This is all on the Philly PD.” Between this declaration and the boilerplate “NO WRONGDOING HERE” paragraph, the government allows itself room to further abuse travelers’ rights and hand over other people’s money to make it all go away.