Over the past year, I have received some interesting email from current and former TSA employees, expressing very real, legitimate, and non-“SSI”-divulging concerns that the public has every right to know about, and which TSA screeners across the nation have every right to see being published. The thing is, most TSA employees are far too scared of retaliation from local management to express their concerns in the media, even though current federal employees do have First Amendment rights, as long as what they write or say falls under the category of public concern.
For the most part, the media is not interested in publishing non-sensational, relatively “banal” articles involving true, addressable organizational problems within the TSA (promotion system, cronyism/favoritism, the re-certification system etc). The media is only interested in eye-popping headlines. That is just reality, as I’ve found out. However, as a former TSA employee who is now in charge of an outlet that can provide substantial exposure, I am fully willing to give voice to TSA employees who wish to exercise their Constitutional, First Amendment rights as federal employees.
Even though I was once told that I “Can’t be doing things like writing letters to the New York Times” by a TSA manager (initials M.R., no longer employed) after a letter of mine was published in the New York Times (that manager’s advice to me definitely felt like a threat), I would like TSA employees around the nation to know that federal employees do have First Amendment rights, and are legally permitted to speak out, without being at risk of losing their jobs (per several federal court rulings), as long as their speech acts fall under the aegis of public concern.
Since the fourth branch of government is mostly uninterested and or unfamiliar with the day-to-day concerns of a Transportation Security Administration employee (since those concerns are usually deemed to not be “headline-worthy”), and since I, as a former TSA employee, am interested in those day-to-day concerns, and find them to be absolutely headline-worthy, I would like to make it known to TSA employees across the nation that this site, right here, Taking Sense Away, is a platform available to you from which you may exercise your First Amendment rights as federal employees, and have your opinions and concerns published for a substantial number of people to see, without having to overcome the unfairly high bar that most members of the sensational-headline-hungry media set as a requirement for access to publication.
The reason I am writing this is because I have recently talked to TSA employees with stories and legitimate complaints that are clearly in the realm of public concern, and who were, unfortunately (with a couple exceptions) unaware of the concept of public concern– in other words, they were under the impression that, as TSA employees, they had no First Amendment rights when it came to expressing their opinions in newspapers, or any public forums. Personally, as a TSA employee, I was never given any training modules making clear to me my First Amendment rights as a government employee when it came to expressing myself in the media. I was given training modules that informed me of my Whistleblowing Act powers, yes, assuming something was very wrong/corrupt in the TSA environment around me, and assuming that my immediate superiors weren’t addressing my concerns about what was wrong after I contacted them.
But as for my right to, say, read the New York Times, see a debate raging that was of national/public concern, and simply express my opinion on the issue so as to meaningfully add to the national/public debate, with the insight that comes with being a federal employee, I was told that “You can’t be doing that here at TSA.” And that was it.
I have approximately 6 great letters from 6 current and former TSA screeners that I am going to publish within the next 2 weeks. All of them express information that the public has every right to know, and which in no way divulge any sort of “SSI.” If any other former or current TSA screeners have information regarding things they witnessed as TSA employees that fall under the category of public concern, I want you to know that this site is a place that you can turn to, and which will do its best to publish what you have to say.
The following is a direct quote from David Hudson, research attorney at the First Amendment Center (law degree from Vanderbilt University).”Disgruntled worker” is a tricky distinction in the following excerpt– but it seems like such a porous criterion that it may ultimately be all but irrelevant:
“Public employees can contribute greatly to civic debate. They are uniquely
situated to speak out on important issues of which the average citizen is unaware. When public employees speak as citizens rather than as disgruntled workers, courts must respect their free-speech interests.
Justice O’Connor recognized this point when she wrote that ‘government
employees are often in the best position to know what ails the agencies for which they work; public debate may gain much from their informed opinions.’
This same principle applies in retaliation and patronage cases. When a public employer retaliates against an employee simply because it dislikes the content of his or her speech, other employees are discouraged from making comments that could be interpreted as critical.” (Source)