Monday, July 23, 2007

Immunity from flying Immams?

Some months ago I wrote about the well known case of the “flying Imams” who engaged in outrageous behavior before and during a domestic airline flight. It is alleged that the Imams prayed loudly with praise for Osama Bin Laden, inveighed against the United States, spaced themselves throughout the aircraft at the same strategic spots chosen by the 9-11 hijackers, and demanded seatbelt extensions (a potential weapon) even though they did not need them. The Imams have waited, apparently for the statute of limitations on any counter-claim, and have sued those who complained about their terrorist-like behavior.

H. R. 1, the Homeland security bill, is currently being developed in the US House of Representatives. In response to the so called “flying imams” incident Congressman Peter King of New York has sponsored a bill that would amend HR 1 to give immunity from lawsuits to people who report apparent terrorist activities. The Democrats are opposing this immunity, and want to preserve the right of pro-Islamist organizations to chill the speech of would be reporters of suspicious activities. Some Democrats have tried to water down King’s language to make it useless. Others have sought to delete in altogether.

Defamation law suits are almost never financially worth while for the plaintiff, even if they win (which they rarely do). The law suits are expensive to defend however. Many ordinary people have no insurance or resources to cover the cost of a defamation law suit. If people believe they can be sued, there will be a tremendous chilling effect against speech to the authorities on possible terrorist actions. Defamation suits allow even real terrorists to exact a high price from those who truthfully expose them because a lawsuit for defamation could cost $100,000 in legal fees even though the defendant prevails in the end.

In the current situation it is important that citizens feel free to share what they see with law enforcement agencies without fear or hesitation. If malicious reporting occurs there are ways to deal with that apart from civil lawsuits. But the rare chance of malicious reporting is insignificant compared to the serious risk to life and limb from unreported terrorist actions.

(Hat tip to Dennis Pragger and Congressman Lundgren’s office)

Update: It looks like King's amendment will pass!

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