On The Front Lines
Atlanta Int’l Airport Amends Its Internet Policy to Remedy Free Speech Violations Raised by The Rutherford Institute
ATLANTA, Ga. — Atlanta International Airport has changed its Wi-Fi policy to address violations of the U.S. Constitution’s assurances of free speech and due process which were brought to light in a letter from The Rutherford Institute to the Airport’s general manager earlier this month. Responding to the letter from Institute attorneys warning that the prior policy jeopardizes the rights of all travelers who pass through its portal and opens the Airport to legal challenges, the general manager wrote that the Wi-Fi policy has been amended to address the First Amendment problems raised in the Institute’s letter and affirmed that the Airport will not attempt to limit or monitor the expression of patrons conducted using the Airport’s Wi-Fi network. The Institute’s letter specifically pointed out that the airport’s Wi-Fi policy barring users from transmitting “hateful or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable” speech was so vague as to prohibit any speech that the censor—in this case, government officials—deems objectionable.
“There is perhaps no right more sacred in our Constitution than the right of individuals to speak as they believe, even though we may not always agree with what they have to say,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “While we all have an interest in discouraging behavior that demeans, harms or exposes another to abuse, we must balance that interest against the rights of society at large, remembering always that it is ‘we the people’ and not government censors who should be responsible for maintaining that vital balance between liberty and security.”
As reported by The Washington Post, the Atlanta International Airport required travelers to agree to abide by its “Wi-Fi System Acceptable Use Policy” in order to access its internet. According to the airport’s Wi-Fi policy, users may not: “Transmit any material (by uploading, posting, email or otherwise) that is unlawful, threatening, abusive, harassing, tortuous, defamatory, obscene, libelous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable.” The Wi-Fi policy also required users to affirm that they will not: “Transmit any material (by uploading, posting, email or otherwise) any unsolicited or unauthorized advertising, promotional materials, ‘junk mail,’ ‘spam,’ ‘chain letters,’ ‘pyramid schemes’ or any other form of solicitation.” In weighing in on the issue, attorneys for The Rutherford Institute pointed out that as a government-owned and operated entity under the jurisdiction of the City of Atlanta through the Department of Aviation, the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is under an obligation to comply with the protections of the First Amendment in its activities. As such, although the government is not required to provide wireless Internet access to airport patrons, once it does so, the government-provided Internet becomes a public forum which must comply with the mandates of the First Amendment and which cannot discriminate on the content of speech. Additionally, Institute attorneys noted that the ban on transmitting solicitous materials is overbroad and would result in protected speech, including political speech, being targeted alongside that of chain mailers and spammers.