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An Orwellian chill ran through my veins as I sat waiting for my connection at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport. It was the early hours of the morning and the Eastern sky was just starting to brighten. Travelers milled about the vast terminal or sat in various stages of slumber at the terminal gates as a female voice echoed over the public address system. It was that familiar security announcement about keeping track of your luggage and such. No one seemed to notice when this particular message went on to say:
“You are also reminded that any inappropriate comments or jokes concerning security may result in your arrest. We appreciate your cooperation while these measures are in effect.”
Arrest? “While these measures are in effect”?
I looked around. No one else seemed to notice they had just been threatened with arrest for cracking jokes or making comments that some security agent might not like. I suddenly felt less free and less safe from the mercurial powers of the state.
Once we discovered that jetliners can become weapons, tightened security was inevitable, but infringing on our First Amendment rights was not part of the bargain. It’s one thing to take off your shoes and empty your pockets, it’s quite another to face arrest for “inappropriate” speech.
Free speech has boundaries, of course. Everyone knows you can’t yell “fire” in a crowed theater or threaten someone with bodily harm, but when was the last time you were reminded about this in a public announcement at your local cinema? Houston’s airport message was obviously not referring to the normal boundaries of free speech.
From where does this authority to arrest come and how broadly is it being interpreted? What law enforcement authority approved this chilling message? And why is this additional “measure” in effect in Houston but not in most other airports, such as in Newark’s Liberty or New York’s Kennedy Airport?
It seems unlikely that the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) would be behind this announcement. The TSA has very limited law enforcement authority. Unless you are committing a felony under US law in their presence, TSA agents have no routine power to arrest you (49 USC 44903(d)(2)). And as far as I know, joking about airport security isn’t a felony. The authority of the TSA extends mostly to allowing passengers to fly or not fly. They can detain you for the purpose of screening or inspecting your personal property, but can’t arrest you if they find, say, a pen knife in your bags. If you refuse to be searched, they can deny you access to the plane. Having said that, the practical reach of the TSA is still an open question and there are examples of apparent abuses of their power. (For an interesting post on TSA authority see: http://www.papersplease.org/wp/2009/04/20/tsa-claims-new-powers-of-detention-search-and-interrogation/).
Most large airports are owned by state or local governments in the US. They operate under state or local authorities, sometimes through an airport authority administration or private management company. Airport security, other than passenger screening, is usually provided by state or local law enforcement agencies.
The George Bush Intercontinental Airport is owned and operated by the City of Huston. It is likely that the Houston Police Department is in charge of airport security. In fact, on the Houston Police Website, M. A. Eisenman is the Assistant Police Chief in charge of the Homeland Security Command and C. W. Driskel is Captain of the Airport Division. If there is a law or temporary measure to limit free speech, the city of Houston and not the TSA would be responsible.
There is internet evidence that this same message has been playing in Houston since at least 2007. In the years since this security message first played, the Iraq war ended, Osama Bin Laden was killed by our special forces, his terrorist network has been decimated, the war in Afghanistan has nearly drawn to a close and there has been no significant attacks in the United States. The “war on terror” is settling into a more or less routine program of security vigilance and covert actions. The flying public accepts today’s airport security arrangements. If there was ever a need to threaten citizens with arrest for inappropriate speech, that heightened need has surely passed. It is time for the City of Huston to stop threatening citizens with arrest for making bad jokes and restore respect for our First Amendment liberties. Houston, take down this threatening message!