Ground the no-fly blacklist

Everyone knows that air travel has changed radically since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, with passengers routinely made to wait in extra long lines for security checks, luggage inspections and shoe-bomb exams.

But that’s not all. Some travelers actually have been stopped from boarding planes, often seemingly because they are vocal opponents of the Bush administration who exercise their First Amendment rights.

For more than a year, the Transportation Security Administration—a federal agency signed into existence by President Bush in the wake of 9/11—has used the “no fly” list supposedly to protect the nation’s transportation system from terrorists. The existence of the list—which government sources say contains at least 1,000 names—has been chronicled by media all over the country. Yet the government denied it existed, at first, and then released scant information about it.

Last year, two dozen members of a Peace Action group in Wisconsin, including a priest and a nun, were detained on the way to a teach-in for peace because their names were on the no-fly list. They were not terrorists. One pacifist Jesuit priest from San Jose routinely is hassled at airports and is told it’s because he’s on the no-fly list. Last August, two San Francisco peace activists—Rebecca Gordon and Janet Adams—were detained inexplicably on the way to Boston because they, too, were on the no-fly list.

Thankfully, Gordon and Adams didn’t chalk the experience up to another post-9/11 airport hassle. Instead, last week, these women became plaintiffs in a case that demands the federal government disclose information about the travel blacklist. The suit—filed in San Francisco by Thomas Burke of the law firm Davis Wright Tremaine and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California—claims to have documentation of 337 instances in which individuals were halted in airports because their names appeared on a no-fly list. (Burke also serves as SN&R’s media attorney.)

Basically, the lawsuit claims government officials improperly withheld information about how people come to be on the list. It further seeks to discover what steps are taken to ensure accuracy of the list and how people who are there for the wrong reasons may have their names expunged.

The point of the Privacy Act of 1974 was to prevent the collection of secret files on U.S. citizens and to allow people to know if the government was keeping track of them. That intent clearly has been violated here. Additionally, the no-fly list is an outright violation of the First Amendment because it restrains free speech and Americans’ right to travel—all with no clear benefits to heightened national security.

Let’s hope this legal challenge succeeds in forcing the government at least to come clean with information about the travel blacklist. And then, let’s demand that the people on the list for their political beliefs are taken off. Forever.