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.
"Earlier this month, the six imams filed suit against the airlines. Shockingly, the imams also filed suit against the passengers who reported the suspicious behavior," the memo said.
"The Republican motion to recommit will ensure that any person that voluntarily reports suspicious activity -- anything that could be a threat to transportation security -- will be granted immunity from civil liability for the disclosure," the memo said.
The amendment is retroactive to activities that took place on or after Nov. 20, 2006 -- the date of the Minneapolis incident, and authorizes courts to award attorneys' fees to defendants with immunity.
"By passing a specific grant of immunity that covers passengers reporting suspicious activity in good faith, we will prevent special-interest lawyers from using 'creative' legal theories to attack the well-meaning passengers who make reports," the memo said.
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said in an open letter yesterday to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty that "the only individuals against whom suit may be raised in this litigation are those who may have knowingly made false reports against the imams with the intent to discriminate against them."
The Becket Fund criticized the lawsuit last week and in a letter to Mr. Awad asked that the "John Does" be removed from the lawsuit, however CAIR is standing by the decision.
"The imams will not sue any passengers who reported suspicious activity in good faith, even when the 'suspicious' behavior included the imams' constitutionally protected right to practice their religion without fear or intimidation," Mr. Awad said.
However, Mr. Awad said that "when a person makes a false report with the intent to discriminate, he or she is not acting in good faith."