House Republicans yesterday surprised Democrats with a procedural vote to protect public-transportation passengers from being sued if they report suspicious activity—the first step by lawmakers to protect “John Doe” airline travelers already targeted in such a lawsuit.
After a heated debate and calls for order, the motion to recommit the Democrats’ Rail and Public Transportation Security Act of 2007 back to committee with instructions to add the protective language passed on a vote of 304-121.
All 121 of the “no” votes were cast by Democrats, while 199 Republicans and 105 Democrats voted in favor.
Republicans said the lawsuit filed by six Muslim imams against US Airways and “John Does,” passengers who reported suspicious behavior, could have a “chilling effect” on passengers who may fear being sued for acting vigilant.
Rep. Peter T. King, New York Republican and ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, offered the motion saying all Americans—airline passengers included—must be protected from lawsuits if they report suspicious behavior that may foreshadow a terrorist attack.
Mr. King called it a “disgrace” that the suit seeks to identify “people who acted out of good faith and reported what they thought was suspicious activity.”
Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, opposed the motion over loud objections from colleagues on the House floor, forcing several calls to order from the chair.
“Absolutely they should have the ability to seek redress in a court of law,” said Mr. Thompson, who suggested that protecting passengers from a lawsuit would encourage racial profiling.
The motion to recommit was based on a bill introduced last week by Rep. Steve Pearce, New Mexico Republican, to protect “John Does” or passengers targeted in a lawsuit filed by six Muslim imams earlier this month in Minneapolis.
Mr. Pearce said the imams are “using courts to terrorize Americans.”
“The Republican motion to recommit will ensure that any person that voluntarily reports suspicious activity—anything that could be a threat to transportation security—will be granted immunity from civil liability for the disclosure,” the memo said.
The amendment is retroactive to activities that took place on or after Nov. 20, 2006—the date of the Minneapolis incident, and authorizes courts to award attorneys’ fees to defendants with immunity.
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said in an open letter yesterday to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty that “the only individuals against whom suit may be raised in this litigation are those who may have knowingly made false reports against the imams with the intent to discriminate against them.”