Academics have expressed concern about plans to expand a programme in the US that sees airline passengers asked to remove books from carry-on luggage.
Some academics object to the Transportation Security Administration’s proposal on the principle that what they read should not be anyone’s business. But many others are worried about what could happen to those reading Arabic or other foreign language literature or books whose covers indicate a point of view that is critical of the Trump administration.
TSA officials have said that their intention is not to judge passengers by what they are reading but to flip through the pages of books to see if anything is hidden there.
But many in academia know the stories of students and faculty members delayed or detained for some combination of their appearance and what they were carrying with them: a Pomona College student was detained because of his Arabic flashcards; an Italian-born professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania was interviewed by security officials based on the complaint of another passenger, delaying his flight; and a professor who was sketching out complex mathematical equations was assumed by a fellow passenger to be writing some sort of terrorist communication.
On social media, some academics joked about being sure to pack pornography or The Tragedy of Julius Caesar in their carry-ons, alongside their other books, so that TSA guards would have plenty of material to flip through.
But they and others say that this is a serious issue of civil liberties – especially for academics, who travel with more books than the average passenger. And before people assume that they can just switch to ebooks, academics should be aware of concerns about reviews of electronic devices on international flights.
Henry Reichman, emeritus professor of history at California State University-East Bay and chair of the American Association of University Professors’ committee on academic freedom and tenure, said that the screening raised particular issues for academics.
“Academics are, unsurprisingly, big readers, and since we don’t simply read for pleasure, we often read materials with which we disagree or which may be seen by others as offensive,” he said. “For instance, a scholar studying terrorism and its roots may well be reading – and potentially carrying on a plane – books that others might see as endorsing terrorism.
“In addition, because scholarship is international, I suspect that academics are more likely than others to be reading and carrying material in foreign languages, which might arouse some suspicion…Finally, academics (as well as editors and journalists) may well be carrying pre-publication materials – drafts for peer review or comment, etc – and these could raise special concerns.”
Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, shared many of these concerns.
“Scholars of literature and related fields carry books, some of them published by the MLA in languages other than English, and it’s definitely a concern how those travellers will be treated if TSA forces them to remove books from carry-on luggage,” Dr Feal said. “We all remember the deplorable treatment of the college student who was arrested for carrying Arabic flashcards and a book critical of US foreign policy. Since the purported reason for the proposed new scrutiny is to detect weapons and explosive material, the TSA should be required to protect the privacy of travellers. The content of e-readers won’t be examined (not so for your baloney sandwich), so books should be allowed to be screened with a cover or, dare I say it, in a plain brown wrapper.”
This is an edited version of a story that first appeared in Inside Higher Ed.