Is It Legal … To Shoot Video At A TSA Checkpoint?

By Rachael Mason, THELAW.TV

Going through airport security is a tedious process. You have to abide by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint guidelines, which usually means taking off your shoes, placing your personal items in the plastic bins, and going through X-ray scanners. Most travelers get through security without incident, but some don’t.

If you’ve ever been selected at random for a full-body scan, an enhanced pat-down, or even a cavity search – the process can be invasive and humiliating. In response to  invasive security searches, people have begun filming them, often posting their videos on YouTube or other websites.

In September 2012, YouTube user Ashley Jessica posted a 10-minute video of the pat-downs she and her mother received at the Norfolk International Airport in Virginia. She later created a Facebook page called Opt Out and Film that encourages airline passengers to say no to TSA body scanners and then shoot video of the pat-downs they receive. In January 2013, another You Tube user posted a video of his pregnant wife receiving a pat-down.

But is taping at the TSA at the airport actually allowed? The agency’s website says: “TSA does not prohibit the public, passengers or press from photographing, videotaping or filming at security checkpoints, as long as the screening process is not interfered with or slowed down. We do ask you to not film or take pictures of the monitors. While the TSA does not prohibit photographs at screening locations, local laws, state statutes, or local ordinances might.”

Still, those attempting to film (or take pictures) at airport security checkpoints are often told by TSA agents that recording is illegal. However, the First Amendment provides protection for those who film officers of the law, including TSA agents.

“Taking photographs and video of things that are plainly visible in public spaces is a constitutional right — and that includes the outside of federal buildings, as well as transportation facilities, and police and other government officials carrying out their duties,” says the American Civil Liberties Union.

Why film what happens at a TSA checkpoint?

Though data about people’s complaints can be requested from the TSA, actually getting the information could take a long time. For instance, after the Kansas City Star asked the agency about complaints, it took the TSA about five months to provide the information that the newspaper had requested.

In contrast, videos posted to the web can spread quickly, allowing the public to see what happens during TSA screenings and pat-downs. These videos can point out mistakes made by officials responsible for security screenings. The most questionable practices often make the local news, with stories even being picked up by the national media.

For example, on Feb. 9, 2013, a 3-year-old girl in a wheelchair was stopped for a pat-down at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport in Missouri. She and her family were on their way to Disney World in Orlando, Fla., but were stopped by TSA agents during a security check. The little girl didn’t actually receive a pat-down, but her wheelchair was swabbed for chemicals and her parents had to carry her through the metal detector.

Though the girl’s mother was told that taping the incident would be illegal, she recorded it anyway and posted the video, which quickly went viral. Ultimately, the TSA issued an apology to the family and added a post to the TSA blog about what happened.

High-profile cases like this one bring national attention to TSA security procedures that many people believe are ineffective. In fact, some lawmakers have also expressed concerned about what happens during airport pat-downs.

“When Americans witness 3-year-old children being aggressively patted down by TSA screeners…our airline security system is broken,” wrote Rush Holt, a Congressman from New Jersey, in a 2010 letter to TSA Administrator John Pistole.

In 2013, state legislators in Kansas have proposed “a bill that would make it illegal for Transportation Security Administration screeners to touch an airline passenger’s private parts as they conduct a pat-down,” reported the Kansas City Star. “It also would bar TSA officers from removing a child under the age of 18 from the control of a parent or guardian.”

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