Most of Virginia airport stripping suit dismissed

RICHMOND, Va. — A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed most of the constitutional claims raised by a Charlottesville man who was arrested after stripping down to his running shorts during an airport checkpoint protest.

U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson tossed out Aaron Tobey’s lawsuit against Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Transportation Security Administration Director John Pistole and the Capital Region Airport Commission. He also dismissed some constitutional claims against TSA screeners Rebecca Smith and Terri Jones but refused to toss Tobey’s claims that they violated his free-speech rights.

False imprisonment and malicious prosecution claims against three Richmond International Airport police officers were not included in the motions for dismissal.

Tobey, 21, was detained at an airport security checkpoint on Dec. 30 after partially disrobing to display part of the text of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment handwritten on his chest. Tobey says he was protesting security measures, including enhanced pat-downs and the use of whole-body imaging scanners that he believes violate the Constitution’s protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

Hudson said Tobey provided no evidence that Napolitano or Pistole played any role in the events of Dec. 30. The judge said Tobey also failed to identify any Capital Region Airport Commission policy that condoned or fostered the alleged violations of Tobey’s free speech, equal protection and Fourth Amendment rights. He also rejected the equal protection and search-and-seizure claims against the TSA screening officers who summoned police, but said it was premature to dismiss the free-speech claim.

The judge said that at this early stage in the case, he must accept as true Tobey’s allegation that he complied with all of the transportation security officers’ orders.

“The question, then, is whether the TSOs in fact radioed for assistance because of the message Plaintiff sought to convey, as opposed to Plaintiff’s admittedly bizarre behavior or because of some other reasonable restriction on First Amendment activity in the security screening area,” Hudson wrote.

The president of The Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville-based civil liberties group that filed the lawsuit on Tobey’s behalf, said the answer to that question is clear.

“Aaron Tobey was arrested for exercising his right to free speech, which is clearly protected under the First Amendment,” John W. Whitehead said after Hudson issued his ruling.

Tobey, a University of Cincinnati student at the time of the arrest, staged the protest as he prepared to board a flight to Wisconsin to attend his grandfather’s funeral. Disorderly conduct charges were later dropped by the Henrico County prosecutor.

Hudson has scheduled a trial on Tobey’s lawsuit against the TSA screeners and airport police officers for Jan. 18.

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