House votes to protect ‘John Does’ on flights

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House Republicans tonight surprised Democrats with a procedural vote to protect public-transportation passengers from being sued if they report suspicious activity — the first step by lawmakers to protect “John Doe” airline travelers already targeted in such a lawsuit.

After a heated debate and calls for order, the motion to recommit the Democrats’ Rail and Public Transportation Security Act of 2007 back to committee with instructions to add the protective language passed on a vote of 304-121.

Republicans said the lawsuit filed by six Muslim imams against US Airways and “John Does,” passengers who reported suspicious behavior, could have a “chilling effect” on passengers who may fear being sued for acting vigilant.

Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, offered the motion saying all Americans — airline passengers included — must be protected from lawsuits if they report suspicious behavior that may foreshadow a terrorist attack.

“All of our lives changed after September 11, and one of the most important things we have done is ask local citizens to do what they can to avoid another terrorist attack, if you see something, say something,” said Mr. King.

“We have to stand by our people and report suspicious activity,” he said. “I cannot imagine anyone would be opposed to this.”

Mr. King called it a “disgrace” that the suit seeks to identify “people who acted out of good faith and reported what they thought was suspicious activity.”

Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, opposed the motion over loud objections from colleagues on the House floor, forcing several calls to order from the chair.

“Absolutely they should have the ability to seek redress in a court of law,” said Mr. Thompson, who suggested that protecting passengers from a lawsuit would encourage racial profiling.

“This might be well-intended, but it has unintended consequences,” Mr. Thompson said, before he accepted the motion to recommit.

The motion to recommit was based on a bill introduced last week by Rep. Steve Pearce, New Mexico Republican, to protect “John Does” or passengers targeted in a lawsuit filed by six Muslim imams earlier this month in Minneapolis.

Mr. Pearce said the imams are “using courts to terrorize Americans.”

“If we allow this lawsuit to go forward it will have a chilling effect,” Mr. Pearce said.

A Republican memo issued prior to the vote cites the November incident when the men were removed from a US Airways flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix for suspicious behavior, the details of which were first reported by The Washington Times.

The men prayed loudly before boarding, did not take their assigned seats and formed patterns officials said mirrored the September 11 hijackers, asked for seat-belt extenders not needed, and criticized President Bush and the war in Iraq.

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