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Airline Passenger’s Stripping Protest Lands Officers In First-Amendment School

For failing to understand and respect the civil liberties of U.S. citizens, law enforcement officers at the Richmond International Airport will now be required to take a two-hour class on the First and Fourth amendments.

The new class is part of the settlement of a lawsuit brought by a man who was unlawfully detained for removing his clothing in protest against the airport’s full-body scanners.

In 2010, 21-year-old Aaron Tobey, a student at the University of Cincinnati, stripped to his underwear in the screening area at Richmond International Airport, revealing a handwrittenmessage on his chest that said, “Amendment 4: The right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated.”

Tobey said he didn’t want to go through the new advanced imaging scanners at the airport. By opting out, he was required to go through a pat-down procedure by a Transportation Security Administration agent.

According to Tobey’s lawyer, James Knicely, Tobey stripped down to his skivvies to show the agent he had nothing to hide and “communicate his objection” to the invasive screening process.

But the TSA agents didn’t find Tobey’s protest amusing and called airport police, who detained Tobey. Handcuffed throughout the 90-minute interrogation, Tobey was asked “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.”

Tobey, who was traveling to Wisconsin for his grandmother’s funeral, was released and made his flight, but Richmond-area prosecutors filed a disorderly conduct charge against him. The misdemeanor charge was dropped days after it was filed. But Tobey fired back and filed a lawsuitagainst the TSA seeking $250,000 in legal fees and damages, claiming the agency violated his civil liberties.

In a lower court, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson sided against Tobey, reasoning that the location of the protest was not appropriate.

“Had this protest been launched somewhere other than in the security-screening area, we would have a much different case,” Judge Wilkinson wrote. “But Tobey’s antics diverted defendants from their passenger-screening duties for a period, a diversion that nefarious actors could have exploited to dangerous effect. Defendants responded as any passenger would hope they would, summoning local law enforcement to remove Tobey — and the distraction he was creating — from the scene.”

However, Tobey’s case was appealed and brought to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled 2 to 1 to overturn the lower court’s decision.

“It is crystal clear,” the appeals court wrote, “that the First Amendment protects peaceful nondisruptive speech in an airport, and that such speech cannot be suppressed solely because the government disagrees with it.”

In his opinion, Judge Roger Gregory wrote: “Mr. Tobey engaged in a silent, peaceful protest using the text of our Constitution — he was well within the ambit of First Amendment protections. And while it is tempting to hold that First Amendment rights should acquiesce to national security in this instance, our Forefather Benjamin Franklin warned against such a temptation by opining that those ‘who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.’ We take heed of his warning and are therefore unwilling to relinquish our First Amendment protections — even in an airport.

The court said that while TSA’s job is to keep passengers safe, Tobey was not aggressive and posed no visible threat to any TSA agents or his fellow passengers.

Many First Amendment and Fourth Amendment advocates say that additional training for the officers is a positive step.

“Sporadic as they are, individuals such as Tobey who appropriately exercise their Constitutional rights are important in keeping under-trained and over-reactive government officials in check of their authority,” Alex Uriarte, a policy assistant at the nonprofit America Achieves, wrote for PolicyMic. “Better education, better training and greater awareness of our civilian rights might just make for a more cooperative, respectful, and constitutional system altogether.”

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