Rights of the Government to Impose Air Security Measures

In response to my piece, Common Sense Offends ACLU, addressing the ACLU’s opposition towards the behavioral screening procedures imposed by the TSA in certain airports, commenter John Newman brought up some questions. John believes that federalizing aviation security matters is Unconstitutional. He advances two particular arguments.

His first argument discusses the Constitution’s “fundamental right to travel”. It mainly consists of picking quotes from Supreme Court cases upholding the fundamental right of travel. I will first mention that the fundamental right of travel is not once mentioned in the Constitution, but may be built from penumbras emanating from some such or the like. But that’s not the crux of the argument. See the following quotes from John’s own selections of court cases (emphasis added below in italics):

require that all citizens be free to travel throughout the length and breadth of our land uninhibited by statutes, rules or regulations which unreasonably burden or restrict this movement

‘any classification which serves to penalize the exercise of that right unless shown to be necessary to promote a compelling governmental interest, is unconstitutional’

The right to travel, to go from place to place as the means of transportation permit, is a natural right subject to the rights of others and to reasonable regulation under law

fundamental personal right that can be impinged only if to do so is necessary to promote a compelling governmental interest

a ‘fundamental’ one, requiring the showing of a ‘compelling state or local interest to warrant its limitation

At the minimum, governmental restrictions upon freedom to travel are to be weighed against the necessity advanced to justify them, and a restriction that burdens the right to travel ‘too broadly and indiscriminately’ cannot be sustained

is basically the right to travel unrestricted by unreasonable government interference or regulation

Note the words used, for they are important. “Compelling government interest.” “Unreasonable burden.” These are phrases which, in Constitutional jurisprudence, have very specific meanings. Another particular phrase that must be added is “strict scrutiny”. A Congressional Research Service paper on Constitutional objections to the showing of ID on airline flights (warning: pdf) covers the defense of the “right to travel” objection quite well:

The Court has declared that the constitutional right to travel consists of three different components: first, it protects the right of a citizen of one state to enter and to leave another state; second, it protects the right to be treated as a welcome visitor rather than an unfriendly alien when temporarily present in the second state; and third, for those travelers who elect to become permanent residents, it protects the right to be treated like other citizens of that state. In the context of transportation security, however, only the first prong of the right to travel appears to be relevant.

Consistent with its status as a fundamental right is the requirement that the government’s action satisfy the constitutional standard of review often referred to as strict scrutiny, or heightened scrutiny. Under strict scrutiny the government must provide a compelling state interest for the burden and show that the means utilized are narrowly tailored to the achievement of the goal or, phrased another way, the least restrictive means available.

Given that the airlines are seemingly authorized to refuse service to anyone who fails to present proper identification, it appears that a strong argument can be made that there is an additional burden imposed on citizens who wish to travel by airplane. Thus, the inquiry should focus on the standard of review that should be applied. It appears difficult to argue that passenger safety and transportation facility security are something other than compelling governmental interests. Thus, it seems that, regardless of which standard of review is applied, the government may be in a strong position to argue that not only are the current security restrictions justifiable, but also that their burden on the right to travel is minimal and given the present conditions entirely reasonable.

From the look of it, to claim that the requirement that one shows ID in order to engage in air travel is unconstitutional appears to be– at the least– unsupported by Constitutional precedent. According to the court cases cited, regulations can legitimately be placed upon travel if there is a compelling state interest to uphold. One would think that stopping passengers from blowing up planes or hijacking them and flying them into buildings would meet even the “strict scrutiny” test.

So we must move on to John’s second argument, which is much shorter and yet at the same time, more difficult to answer. He asks where it is enumerated that airline security is a federal matter to begin with?

If the airlines want to impose security practises and procedures, I have no problem with that. Where is it enumerated in the Constitution that it is a matter for the federal government?

There are a lot of ways to answer this question. The first answer, although some creativity can change it, is that it simply isn’t in there. Article I, Section 8 has no provisions for regulation of airline security, nor does it ever claim that police power is the realm of the federal government. But two particular provisions might at least be able to be shown to have relevance:

To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations;

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

This is, of course, a stretch up there with those who might envision a “living Constitution”. But if we’re going to allow a “fundamental right to travel”, I’m asking for a little bit of leeway. As I said above, nothing in the Constitution gives the federal government police powers over the states. But here’s where you can find a bit of an AHA! moment. The bits in Article I, Section 8 regarding Piracies and Felonies on the High Seas are quite analogous to those of hijackings and bombings of commercial aircraft. Both involve non-government-owned vessels (i.e. the government did protect private merchant ships from piracy); and both involve territory separate from that of land under the jurisdiction of the several states. When it comes to international waters and spaces, laws tend to become blurred and confusing which is why legal matters under maritime law should be taken up with lawyers experienced in this field.

Second, the whole bit about “repel invasions”. We are in a war against foreign and quite possibly partly domestic enemies who will use commercial airlines to attack our nation. I don’t like using the “national security” defense in most circumstances, but there is a certain point at which one might allow that protecting our buildings and populace from terrorists who will (and have) hijack aircraft with the purpose of using them as guided missiles to attack civilian targets is a reason for which we might want to take on government-ordained security procedures.

Last, John had suggested that perhaps if the airlines wanted to enact security procedures, that might be enough for him (although I don’t understand how he does not similarly support private hiring and firing practices). And if the airlines had secure cockpits and could not be hijacked, I might agree. But once the airplane becomes a guided missile filled with fuel aimed at a building, the equation changes. Just as states and municipalities have laws regarding drunk driving or speeding, which can turn an automobile into a 3,000 lb missile, the feds have airline security regulations to keep an airplane from doing the same thing. The only thing that gives the feds jurisdiction, though, is that the particular exigencies of airline travel require it.

Simply put, there are a lot of things about federal power that highly disturb me. This is one of the few that does not. I’m not one to suggest that we should federalize the airport screeners, following in Daschle’s footsteps; because I suspect the procurement of security is better handled by the private sector, while the requirements of security are best handled by the government.

Either way, John, I thank you for the good-natured and challenging debate. As always, when debating a formidable opponent such as yourself, I only learn more and improve my own understanding in the process. And, of course, I’m sure this won’t quite be the end of it :-)

(cross-posted at The Unrepentant Individual)