On Friday, I flew out of New York’s JFK T1 after experiencing what was the longest airport security line I have ever seen. It literally stretched from the zig-zag queue at the center of the terminal to the far end of the terminal, and then around the corner. The TSA, of course, knows that terrorists now target security lines, rather than airplanes, and doesn’t seem to care that they are putting us at risk, but I digress.
After finally reaching the front of the queue, I spotted, for the first time, the TSA’s new experiment with bomb-sniffing dogs. Interested in finally seeing the TSA put a far better solution in place for the detection of non-metallic explosives than the body scanners, I snapped a few pictures, including the one here.
But, of course, the TSA can’t leave well enough alone. “You can’t take pictures!” barks the dog’s handler. I can’t? Well that’s news to me, and I consider myself pretty up-to-date on aviation security law. 🙂 I soon spot an STSO (supervisory transportation security officer — the “3 stripe” blue uniform people) and ask her to clarify, but she tells me she doesn’t have time to talk to me. Eventually, I spot her boss, the TSM (transportation security manager — always wearing a suit), a very friendly South Asian woman who is cheerfully tells me that my First Amendment right to photograph has been suspended:
Jon: Are you the TSM by chance?
Jon: I have a question for you.
Jon: What’s the policy on taking pictures in line? The person with the K-9 told me I was not allowed to take pictures.
TSM: Yes, that’s a screening process, what he’s doing there, so you’re not allowed to take pictures.
Jon: OK, so that’s a federal regulation?
Jon: Not New York state, that’s a TSA…
TSM: No, not New York state, it’s federal.
Jon: Ok, so if I ask the TSA, because I’m a civil rights advocate, and my job is to sue the TSA, if I ask them, they’re going to tell me that I’m not allowed to take the pictures, and that’s official TSA policy?
TSM: You have to specify what you were doing.
Jon: Taking a picture of a K-9.
TSM: You can’t.
TSM: Because that’s a screening process.
Where legal, I generally record my interactions with the TSA, and New York being a 1-party consent state (any party to a conversation may record it), I got an audio recording (.mp3). (As a side note, a reasonable argument can be made, and some courts have held, that audio or video recording of government officials while working in public is constitutionally protected even in 2-party consent states.)
Why is this a “big deal,” some may ask: Any time the government restricts our ability to take pictures, they are reducing their accountability to the people. Thousands of times per day, law enforcement in this country violates the rights of citizens, but only occasionally is it caught on camera, and only then is it punished (sometimes). By removing our ability to document their actions, they are insulating themselves from consequences for wrongdoing, and this a free society cannot stand.
I’ve asked the TSA’s Civil Rights Office to comment as to whether this is official TSA policy and await a reply, but expect a new lawsuit to be filed soon either way.