Rep. Peter King eyes protecting terror tipsters from lawsuits
BY Joseph Straw
WASHINGTON - If you see something, say something - and don't worry about getting sued.
That's the push Rep. Pete King is making in Congress, hoping to expand liability protection for people who report something fishy that could indicate a terror plot.
"Good citizens who report suspicious activity should not have to worry about being sued," said King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
A 2007 law only covers tips made on passenger transportation - but not by the man on the street, like hero Times Square vendors Lance Orton and Duane Jackson.
The transit reform stemmed from a case in which six Muslim clerics were thrown off a flight due to passengers' concerns.
The imams sued the passengers, crew members and the airline. They eventually dropped the passengers from the suit and reached an out-of-court settlement with the others.
King's bill and two similar proposals were spurred by the federal Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative. The Department of Homeland Security has borrowed the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's "See Something, Say Something" slogan.
Bill proponents include major law enforcement groups. They point to actions like those of T-shirt vendor Orton and handbag salesman Jackson, who alerted cops to Faisal Shahzad's SUV parked in a bus lane in Times Square last May.
The truck was packed with explosives that ignited - but did not explode.
Skeptics include Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan). At a recent hearing he voiced doubt that liability protection is even necessary and questioned some supporters' motives.
"The rhetoric can be prettied up ... but the message is the same: that law enforcement and the public need to target Muslims in order to keep us safe," Nadler said.
The bill limits protections to truthful reports filed "in good faith and based on objectively reasonable suspicion."
It also entitles legitimate tipsters to recover legal fees if sued.
Alejandro Beutel of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, which worked with Los Angeles police on a suspicious activity reporting program, said the bill needs more explicit language to prevent abuse.
DHS's national program features such safeguards. Federal agencies cull race and religion data from reports, and protected free speech is off-limits. A DHS spokesman declined to comment on the bills.