The Abominable No Fly List

Last week the US government prohibited poet and journalist Amjad Nasser from speaking at an event to inaugurate the Gallatin Global Writers series at New York University. How did the government do this? By having a policeman at the event inform Nasser that he would be arrested if he took his turn to speak at the event? No, that would be a clear prior restraint on speech in violation of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution — a government action courts routinely rule is prohibited. Instead, the US government simply banned Nasser from flying to the conference.

Nasser recounts the process by which his participation in the event was blocked by a faceless Department of Homeland Security agent on the other end of a phone line at London Heathrow Airport. At the airport terminal, Nasser was handed a phone whereupon the US bureaucrat on the call peppered him with personal questions about Nasser and the event at which Nasser was planning to speak. Nasser relates that, after two hours on the phone, the questioner informed Nasser that Nasser was banned from taking the already booked, and by then already departed, US-bound flight.

While Nasser, a British and Jordanian citizen, had to answer a series of questions regarding his private affairs in hopes that he would just be allowed to board the plane and fulfill his speaking commitment, the US bureaucrat on the other end of the line was not obliged to even provide an explanation for why Nasser was prevented from boarding the plane. Nasser relates how the phone interrogation wound down upon the inquisitor’s announcement of Nasser’s travel prohibition:

… he said: I am sorry. You cannot board this departing plane (It had already taken off) to New York.

– What is the reason?

– I cannot disclose that.

– Do I not have a right to know the reason?

– No.

– Just like that?

– Just like that.

The direct result of Nasser’s ban from the flight is that he was prevented from speaking in person at the event in New York City. A second very important result is that anyone who hears the story of Nasser’s travel restriction learns the lesson that if you want to travel freely it is best to not speak out about anything that could risk provoking the ire of the US government — or even of any random, faceless US bureaucrat who may hold veto power over your travel plans. This threat hanging over travelers certainly, in the language of US courts, “chills” speech. But, being removed a step from outright speech restrictions, courts would be less likely to find the travel prohibition violates of the First Amendment — especially so long as the government can get away with providing absolutely no reason for imposed travel prohibitions.

While Nasser’s ordeal alone is disturbing, what is even more disturbing is that such banning of airplane travel is routinely meted out by US bureaucrats upon travelers both foreign and American. And, as in the case of Nasser, these other blacklisted travelers are regularly provided absolutely no reason for the deprivation of their ability to exercise their right to travel.

The treatment of Nasser and other people subjected to the US government travel blacklist is properly describable as Kafkaesque, reminiscent of the arrest of Josef K. at the beginning of Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial:

“I want to see Mrs. Grubach …,” said K., making a movement as if tearing himself away from the two men – even though they were standing well away from him – and wanted to go. “No,” said the man at the window, who threw his book down on a coffee table and stood up. “You can’t go away when you’re under arrest.” “That’s how it seems,” said K. “And why am I under arrest?” he then asked. “That’s something we’re not allowed to tell you. Go into your room and wait there. Proceedings are underway and you’ll learn about everything all in good time. It’s not really part of my job to be friendly towards you like this, but I hope no-one, apart from Franz, will hear about it, and he’s been more friendly towards you than he should have been, under the rules, himself. If you carry on having as much good luck as you have been with your arresting officers then you can reckon on things going well with you.”

The US government’s No Fly List operates in opaqueness, like the arrest of K. An individual on the No Fly List is administratively denied the ability to exercise the right to travel, as well as to exercise rights that travel facilitates — from free speech to participating in commerce to visiting family and friends, all without any of the due process the US Constitution guarantees. By an entirely secret process your name ends up on the No Fly List. You find out about your travel prohibition by showing up for a flight and being told you cannot fly on your booked flight, and that’s that. It is you at the airport with Transportation Security Administration bureaucrats offering at best a mix of platitudes, warnings, and “helpful advice” about how if you jump through all the right hoops you just might be able to convince the government to again respect — until it may decide arbitrarily not to again — your right to travel. They may well even tell you that they are sticking their necks out for you by talking with you for a few minutes.

Continue reading at the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity.

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