5 times you should stand up to the TSA

Francisco Canseco took a stand when a TSA agent tried to give him an enhanced pat-down last spring.

Canseco, who happens to also be a Texas congressman, objected to the agent’s forceful frisking, and a few days later, to being singled out for a secondary screening. Police had to be called in that incident.

A report published by the San Antonio Express-News last week, which retrieved an incident report under the Freedom of Information Act, paints a complex picture of Rep. Canseco’s confrontation: A legislator who had already taken a public stand on the agency’s effectiveness — or lack thereof — and airport agents who may have wanted to show the congressman who’s in charge.

But it also raises a bigger question: When do you say “enough” to the TSA?

After I wrote about the things you shouldn’t say to the TSA, I sustained a little friendly fire from agency critics, who believe you should always give agents a piece of your mind.

I understand where they’re coming from, and I agree with them, in principle; you shouldn’t ever feel like you have to remain silent. (And yes, I was horrified that a majority of those polled said they were afraid to speak up. Come on, people!)

Sure, there are times when you want to skirt the issue. For example, when you’re running late for your flight, you don’t want to get into an argument with an agent about the Fourth Amendment. The luxury of a debate is something you forfeit for sleeping in that morning. Likewise, you probably don’t want to find out how photogenic your screener thinks he is when your flight is already boarding. Keep the camera in your luggage, keep your head down, and be done with the screening.

Here are the times you should take a stand.

When you’re uncomfortable with the screening process. TSA’s screening process has evolved from a common-sense approach to checking passengers a decade ago to the multimedia circus we’re subjected to today. One thing hasn’t changed: The little voice inside you that says, “That’s it. I’m no longer comfortable with what’s happening.” It’s the moral compass that always points to “right.” No federal agency can take that from you, or reset it, or force you to ignore it.

I may not agree with every position Rep. Canseco has taken, and I wasn’t there when he took a stand against his enhanced pat-down (see video, above). Did he want to create a controversy? Maybe. But I have no doubt that many TSA agents, given the chance to give a critic a little payback, wouldn’t hesitate. I also have no doubt that he was made to feel uncomfortable. He had the right, and the obligation, to say something.

When you’re uncomfortable with how someone you’re traveling with is being screened. If you’re a parent flying with your children or an elderly relative, you have an obligation to monitor a TSA screening. Even though the TSA has special procedures for children and seniors, agents still have a lot of discretion in how they can screen your dependents. It’s still possible for them to cross a line.

It isn’t just that an overzealous pat-down can traumatize the most vulnerable among us, potentially leaving them with lifelong scars. It’s that every time we let them take our children into a private screening area and reach under their belts and stroke their limbs, we are effectively giving them a license to continue violating our basic constitutional rights. You have to speak up.

When you see something you think may be illegal. TSA agents have a well-deserved reputation for stealing from luggage. Screeners are not above the law, their blue uniforms and shiny badges notwithstanding. If you see something, say something.

When you believe you’re being punished. If the screening process lasts too long — say, you’re you’re stuck in a glass enclosure for almost an hour, like this woman — then you have to take a stand. Agents who are questioned may use some of their “discretion” to subject you to anything from a lengthy screening to a long wait in an enclosed area. That’s just wrong, and you need to speak up when it happens.

When the screeners shouldn’t be there. TSA airport screeners who find themselves in a subway, train station or at an NFL game, should be questioned no matter what they do. The infamous VIPR program is a troubling breach of the TSA’s understood mandate, and agents who try to stop and question you have virtually no jurisdiction, legally speaking.

If you see uniformed TSA agents outside the airport, and they’re not off-duty, feel free to assume they’re up to no good. Actually, you can probably make that assumption even if they are off duty. If one of them tries to force you through a magnetometer or rifles through your belongings, tell them you do not consent to a search. They will probably have no choice but to let you walk away.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of times when you should take a stand against a TSA screening procedure. You will have your own list somewhere, maybe not fully articulated, but you’ll know when to say, “stop.”

Don’t be afraid to.

When you do, remember: The agents screening you don’t like confrontations any more than you do and they respond well to politeness. The only fault I can find with Rep. Canseco’s confrontation is that he swatted the agent away, when he could have simply stepped back.

Raising your voice, hitting an agent or threatening one of these federal employees may feel good in the moment, but it is almost totally unproductive when it comes to ending the TSA’s questionable screening practices.

There are more of us than there are of them, and when we politely but firmly refuse to be treated like criminals, we will win.

  • Kitten

    The last time I flew, five years ago, I politely requested a TSO to change her gloves before inspecting my food case. (For medical reasons, I must carry safe food with me when I travel because I can become very ill if I inadvertently consume foods to which I am sensitive.) She ignored me. I reached out to prevent her handling my food with the gloves that had just been handling someone’s shoes and had my hands smacked, and was given a sharp, “You’re not allowed to touch that until it’s inspected.” I told her, “That is MY food and YOU are not allowed to inspect it without changing your gloves, per TSA policy, as I requested.” She glared, but did change her gloves. I have not flown since because it is just not worth it, as I have added a few other disability issues since then. If they take my cane away — and they do — I risk falling. If I fall, I cannot get up on my own — 911 will have to be called.

  • Hivewhacker

    May I suggest another instance where it would be appropriate to speak up? When a TSA agent is rude. If you are not addressed respectfully, or if you are having orders barked at you like fresh recruit, report that agent to a supervisor as soon as you are through the Nude-O-Tron and have your shoes back on- they can’t put you in the glass stalag if you’ve been cleared. You are a paying customer, and there is absolutely no reason you should have to put up with rudeness in any form. I also carry my own copies of the official TSA complaint form (it’s floating around on the net, downloadable as a PDF). Once a TSA supervisor told me they were “out of” complaint forms (I suspected a ruse…)- now I bring ’em, because I know I’ll need them.

  • TSAisTerrorism

    For my part I’ll tell you this: I took a stand against TSA when I was physically assaulted at the checkpoint. And, no, this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill opt-out groping.

    As punishment they tried to levy their famous $11,000 fine. We’re still negotiating my *ahem* “guilt”, and what sort of financial pain I should feel for it.

    They investigated their own actions, and unsurprisingly found themselves blameless at every level. My in-kind response brought on by their own battery under color of authority was an “egregious display of barbaric assault”. That’s a direct quote from TSA.

    Just be prepared for TSA to make a grand show of any dissent. After all, that’s what this circus is all about.

    • Thank you for taking a stand, TSAisTerrorism. (I love repeating your screen name; I think it’s my new motto!) Please keep us updated about the threatened fine. I haven’t heard of anyone actually paying one of those fines yet, though I have heard about someone who got a “we’re keeping records on you and the next time you do this you will definitely have to pay $11,000” letter.

  • Drontil

    You’re punished every time you opt out. The invasiveness of the enhanced pat down was designed in order to force passengers through WBI.

  • I wish I could be as sanguine. As for “and they respond well to politeness,” this just isn’t true. I got metaphorically slapped down for politeness, as have thousands of others. There are a lot of bullies in blue out there, and they don’t respond to anything resembling decency.

    • I informed a TSA document checker that saying my name aloud in public is a security risk for me. Travel safety experts recommend that women traveling alone refrain from saying their names aloud for many reasons. My government abuser laughed in my face at my legitimate security concern. Politeness is never returned in politeness with the TSA. My best strategy is to say nothing to my abusers at all. These people are the lowest of the low and do not deserve pleasantries, or oxygen, for that matter.