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On The Front Lines

Rutherford Institute Warns Atlanta Int’l Airport That Its Internet Policy Censors Travelers’ Free Speech Rights, Runs Afoul of the First Amendment

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute are warning officials with the Atlanta International Airport that its Wi-Fi policy runs afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s assurances of free speech and due process and, in so doing, jeopardizes the rights of all travelers who pass through its portal and should be altered to comply with the U.S. Constitution lest the Airport open itself to legal challenges. Specifically, Institute attorneys point out that the airport’s Wi-Fi policy barring users from transmitting “hateful or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable” speech is 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 is requiring 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 requires 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 point 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 note 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. Rutherford Institute attorneys have offered to assist the airport in redrafting its Wi-Fi policy to bring it in line with the Constitution.

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