In Brief

ACLU and Academics Concerned over TSA Proposal to Inspect Travelers’ Books [UPDATED]

If we all have to remove paper products — including books — from our carry-on bags, will it lead to new scrutiny of what we’re reading?

(graphic by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is testing new requirements that would oblige travelers to remove books and other paper goods from their carry-on baggage when going through airport security. The new proposal hasn’t gone into effect, though the TSA, which is an agency of the US Department of Homeland Security, has tested it at airports, including in early May, when screeners at a Kansas City airport “forced passengers to remove all paper from bags, down to notepads,” according to Wall Street Journal; The Sacramento Bee reported that the TSA also tested this policy in Sacramento. The TSA is also considering requiring passengers to remove food from their bags, which the agency says disrupts x-ray readings.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is concerned about the proposed book policy. A senior policy analyst for the ACLU, Jay Stanley, recently outlined the issues at stake on the organization’s blog.

“[B]ooks raise very special privacy issues,” Stanley wrote. “There is a long history of special legal protection for the privacy of one’s reading habits in the United States, not only through numerous Supreme Court and other court decisions, but also through state laws that criminalize the violation of public library reading privacy or require a warrant to obtain book sales,  rental, or lending records.”

TSA agents already have the authority to search what they want, and anyone who has been subject to extra screenings will know that notebooks and other books are often flipped through by agents, who sometimes even read their pages. That was the experience of artist Kameelah Janan Rashid, who was removed from a plane on her way to Istanbul in 2015. Yet this new policy, as outlined by Stanley, “would lead to more routine and systematic exposure and, inevitably, greater scrutiny of passengers’ reading materials in the course of the screening process.”

Henry Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay and chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, told Inside Higher Ed that the screening change was troubling:

Academics are unsurprisingly big readers, and since we don’t simply read for pleasure, we often read materials with which we disagree or which may be seen by others as offensive. […] For instance, a scholar studying terrorism and its roots may well be reading — and potentially carrying on a plane — books that others might see as endorsing terrorism. In addition, because scholarship is international, I suspect academics are more likely than others to be reading and carrying material in foreign languages, which might arouse some suspicion. … Finally, academics (as well as editors and journalists) may well be carrying pre-publication materials — drafts for peer review or comment, etc. — and these could raise special concerns.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in an interview with Fox News Sunday last month that the department “might and likely will” expand the new carry-on policy.

In 2009, a student studying Arabic was detained for over four hours, partly in handcuffs, because of the Arabic-language flashcards he was carrying. The 27-year-old student was also questioned about a book he had with him that was critical of US foreign policy — the book was written by a former aide to President Reagan. The student missed his flight and sued the Justice Department. In 2015, the student won a $25,000 settlement for the incident.

UPDATE, June 28, 12:04pm EST: Inside Higher Ed is reporting that the TSA will abandon their project to screen books separately. An agency spokeswoman told the publication that “the test on book screening was appropriate, but was limited. ‘This test protocol was designed so X-ray operators could have a clearer view of carry-on baggage at checkpoints. Like many tests TSA performs at checkpoints around the country, we collected valuable data but, at this time, are no longer testing or instituting these procedures.'”

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