When liberty beat security at the airport

A potentially important story was reported by Wired’s David Kravets on Friday, though it resulted in nary a peep from the national media.

A Virginia man named Aaron Tobey, detained for 90 minutes by the Transport Security Administration in 2010 for revealing an abridged version of the fourth amendment scrawled on his chest, was awarded $250,000 in a civil suit against the TSA.

TSA officials could have just rolled their eyes at Tobey, told him to put on his shirt and move along, dismissing the act as harmless civil disobedience.

Instead, they proved why his grievances are legitimate:

According to the suit, while under interrogation, the authorities wanted to know “about his affiliation with, or knowledge of, any terrorist organizations, if he had been asked to do what he did by any third party, and what his intentions and goals were.”

But another branch of the U.S. government was decidedly more sympathetic. The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in Tobey’s favor, citing Benjamin Franklin’s proclamation about the need for liberty to trump that for security.

The reason this case is important, however, isn’t just the mere symbolism. In recent years, activists affiliated with WikiLeaks have been detained by federal officials at airports for doing what mainstream journalists do all the time.

One such detention occurred two years ago, when:

Jacob Appelbaum, an American citizen in his late 20s, was questioned and searched for 30 minutes at Seattle Tacoma International Airport on Monday evening after returning from Iceland. The inventor of the Tor Project, security software that allows computer users to surf the web anonymously, Appelbaum has lent his computer security expertise to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. He was previously detained and searched by federal agents at Newark airport last July, and is one of five WikiLeaks volunteers whose Twitter accounts were subpoenaed by the U.S. government in December.

Moreover, haphazard additions to the no-fly list amount to human rights abuses. Imagine being stuck abroad after finding out that your name was mistakenly added to the list. A Malaysian woman — a former legal resident — alleges that it happened to her. And earlier this month, the Justice Department asked a federal judge to secretly dismiss her lawsuit about her no-fly list status. The judge refused.

I’m no legal expert (an admission that I’m sure will elicit strong agreement in the comments section). But the ruling in Tobey’s case could set a precedent that affects airline travelers who sue the government for harassment and other forms of undue inconvenience. If nothing else, the ruling shows that at least some judges refuse to buy the need for the national security doctrine to outweigh civil libertarian concerns at the airport. And that’s crucial if the Constitution is to mean anything, considering how normalized airline travel has become.

Samuel Knight

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.