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.

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Comments on “Government Pays Up To Settle With Traveler Who Was Detained By TSA For Trying To Learn Arabic”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

'Do what we say, not what we do'

Keep in mind, this is the very same TSA that was mentioned in a previous article, and said the following with regards to those looking to sign on and help them with their ‘PreCheck’ screening system:

‘Risk assessments may not be based on race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, age, financial status (e.g., credit ratings/scores, liens, bankruptcies, foreclosures, annual income), health records, constitutionally protected activity, or other records reflecting an individual’s socio-economic status.

kog999 says:

Re: Insult to injury

“Where are people going to find work who don’t know which end of a hole is down?”

Who cares, employee them to hold down chairs with their butts in case gravity suddenly turns off, At least they wont be violating peoples rights. I would rather waste tax dollars then was tax dollars and trample peoples rights.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Oh $25k would have been more than enough to get the message across… if it was taken out of the pay of the TSA agents and police involved. Twenty-five grand, split three or four ways? Oh yeah, that would have gotten their attention.

As it is it really doesn’t matter what the amount is, none of those involved are the ones having to pay out, so why should they care? Hell, the settlement even makes it clear that even despite the fact that they’re paying out to the guy, they still aren’t admitting to having done anything wrong.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

The settlement really needed at least 3 more 0’s and an actual apology.

In our breathless rush to stop terror, we revealed that we are xenophobic racists. That we willingly hand control over to people who can wrap themselves in the flag and never be held accountable for violating citizens rights because terrorism.

We’ve already seen the comeback of McCarthyism, but no one wants to call it that. If you are critical of the government, that is a reason for them to open a file on you and dig through your entire life for daring to question the powers that be. Not accepting the narrative of the fatherland is working against the state and needs to be investigated & stopped by any means… even violating your rights so they can send a chilling message of submit or else.

Anonymous Coward says:

It's been writen before...

“He put it this way and that, and when they failed to comprehend, he once was careless enough to telegraph: “Cut the plutonium down to size”—as if fitting a sole. But here the King took fright, for plutonium is most closely related to uranium, and uranium—to thorium, and Archithorius after all was his own name. So he sent out an armored guard, which seized Pyron and hurled him on the leaden floor before the face of the King. Pyron admitted to nothing, but the King imprisoned him in his palladium tower.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Meanwhile in Cairo...

The supervisor asked me: “Do you know who bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building?” Taken totally aback, I answered: “Timothy McVeigh?” Then she asked me if I knew what language Timothy McVeigh spoke. “English,” I replied. “So do you see why these cards are suspicious?” she finished.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Meanwhile in Cairo...

Taking it a step further…
“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 did Osama Bin Laden drink 24 hours before the attack. “Water” I replied. “So do you see why these bottles are suspicious?” she finished.”

John85851 (profile) says:

Punishments should be a deterrent

Punishments should be a deterrent so people won’t continue the behavior. A $25,000 settlement is most definitely not “punishment”.

First, the government isn’t really paying this out of their own pockets- it’ll be the tax payers who actually pay it.
Second, what’s the TSA’s budget: $5 billion? $10 billion? Okay, I’m exaggerating, but this amount is nothing compared to their total budget. It’s like you or me getting fined $5- we’ll pay it and move on.

So how is this going to deter the TSA agents from doing it again? It may be unfair to fine someone $25,000 for “just doing their job” but how about firing them? How about creating an environment where it’s unacceptable to detain people just because they want to learn another language.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Punishments should be a deterrent

Hah. Funny. I just wrote a comment saying the opposite. I hate the massive payouts our country sees. I like $25k, although I’d prefer $100k as more appropriate for wasting 3 years of this guy’s time.

So in response to your point that this money is paid by the taxpayers anyways, how would any higher amount deter them any more?

I’m with you, firing, demotions, and other such job action should also be part of the punishment. But the dollar amount is unrelated to this.

And I think this judgement precisely contributes to “creating an environment where it’s unacceptable to detain people just because they want to learn another language”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Punishments should be a deterrent

Second, what’s the TSA’s budget: $5 billion? $10 billion? Okay, I’m exaggerating,
No, you are not. They have a budget of over $7 billion.

2nd paragraph, middle:
“In recent years, TSA has received around $5.7 billion in mandatory and discretionary appropriations, which—together with spending authority from offsetting collections—gives the agency an annual budget of more than $7 billion

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Finally, A Good Settlement

I love this closure. It is about a learning moment for the TSA and the Philly Police, and a nominal payment for the victim.

Our country has too many multi-million dollar court-ordered payments. Like the xxAA cases, and hot coffee, and thousands more. If fines were equal to lost time + suffering x 2, our insurance rates would be better, and we would sue less, and we would seem fewer restrictions for fear of lawsuit, and greater freedom.

Anonymous Coward says:

Clearly he gave the wrong answer to the supervisor

The supervisor was obviously expecting him to give the 9/11 truther answer: “9/11 was an inside job orchestrated by a shadow government with the help of highly placed individuals in the public government, for the purpose of drumming up public support for an unprecedented growth of the military industrial complex.”

Anonymous Coward says:


I really hope someone just says no to a settlement and goes all the way through the court(s). At least then we would see if an agency can do whatever it wants and gets away with it or if they are guilty and it was a violation against basic rights.
But if the current settlement trend continues I don’t see a bright future because something like this reminds me of the stuff I read about past times when the aristocracy just threw some coins at people to calm them(aka settle).

Anonymous Coward says:


“Do they ask every English speaking person if they know who blew up the Oklahoma federal building and that he spoke English, so you must be a home grown terrorist if you speak English?”

Only if they’re carrying flash cards. Four-year olds are especially likely suspects even when they don’t know the answer.

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