Legislation proposed today in Congress would grant civil immunity to people who report suspicions of terrorist activity to law enforcement, as well as to people in law enforcement who respond to those reports.
The bill is in response to a civil rights lawsuit that six imams filed after they were removed in 2006 from a US Airways flight before takeoff at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Other passengers had grown suspicious after watching the imams pray, switch seats and request seat-belt extensions.
The imams settled their claims against the airline, the airport and law enforcement in 2009. They initially sued the other passengers but voluntarily dismissed that part of their lawsuit in 2007, according to court records.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said such passengers shouldn’t have to worry about getting sued for making a report they believe to be true. “For voicing their reasonable fears that these passengers could be rehearsing or preparing to execute a hijacking, these concerned citizens found themselves as defendants in a civil rights lawsuit and accused of bigotry,” Collins said in speech prepared for the Senate floor.
“The existence of this lawsuit,” Collins added, “illustrates how unfair it is to allow private citizens to be intimidated into silence by the threat of litigation. Would the passengers have spoken up if they had anticipated that there would be a lawsuit filed against them? Even if such suits fail, they can expose citizens to heavy costs in time and legal fees.”
The imams said in their lawsuit that they were humiliated by the experience, and that they were held for hours for little reason. One of the imams, Omar Shahin, told The Associated Press in 2009 that their lawsuit sent a strong message. “We still encourage everyone to report any suspicious activity,” he said. “But we should handle it in a very professional way. We should not humiliate anybody, we should not underestimate anybody, we should not do wrong to anybody.”
Collins is sponsoring the new legislation (PDF) along with Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is expected to push a similar bill in the House.
A 2007 law sponsored by Collins and Lieberman granted immunity to those reporting suspicious activity related to transportation systems. The latest proposal isn’t limited by the type of alleged target.