The Transportation Security Administration is testing and plans to expand a program in which airline passengers will be asked to remove books from carry-on luggage.
The plan has been discussed by TSA for several weeks now, but it attracted attention this weekend when the American Civil Liberties Union released an analysis of the proposal that noted concerns about passengers having to reveal what they are reading. Some academics object to the idea on the principle that what they read should not be anyone's business. But many others are worried about what could happen to those reading Arabic or other foreign language literature or books whose covers indicate a point of view that is critical of the Trump administration.
TSA officials have said that their intent is not to judge passengers by what they are reading but to flip through the pages of books to see if anything is hidden there.
But many in academe know the stories of students and faculty members delayed or detained for some combination of their appearance and what they were carrying with them. There was the Pomona College student who was detained over his Arabic flash cards. And there was the Italian-born professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania whose flight was delayed after security officials interviewed him based on the complaint of another passenger. The professor was writing out complex mathematical equations that his fellow passenger assumed were some sort of terrorist communication.
On social media, some academics joked Sunday about being sure to pack pornography or The Tragedy of Julius Caesar in their carry-ons, alongside their other books, so that TSA guards would have plenty of material to flip through.
But they and others say that this is a serious issue of civil liberties -- especially for academics, who travel with more books than the average passengers. And before people assume that they can just switch to ebooks, academics should be aware of concerns about reviews of electronic devices on international flights.
The ACLU analysis of the new TSA program notes that books "raise very special privacy issues," and that "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."
The analysis continued: “A person who is reading a book entitled ‘Overcoming Sexual Abuse’ or ‘Overcoming Sexual Dysfunction’ is not likely to want to plop that volume down on the conveyor belt for all to see. Even someone reading a best-seller like 50 Shades of Grey or a mild self-help book with a title such as ‘What Should I Do With My Life?’ might be shy about exposing his or her reading habits. And of course someone reading Arab or Muslim literature in today’s environment has all too much cause to worry about discrimination.”
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, said via email that the screening raised particular issues for academics.
"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," he said. "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."
Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, also shared concerns via email.
"Scholars of literature and related fields carry books, some of them published by the MLA in languages other than English, and it's definitely a concern how those travelers will be treated if TSA forces them to remove books from carry-on luggage," Feal said. "We all remember the deplorable treatment of the college student who was arrested for carrying Arabic-English flash cards and a book critical of U.S. foreign policy. Since the purported reason for the proposed new scrutiny is to detect weapons and explosive material, the TSA should be required to protect the privacy of travelers. The content of ereaders won't be examined (not so for your baloney sandwich), so books should be allowed to be screened with a cover or, dare I say it, in a plain brown wrapper."