What started out as a pair of independent journalists demonstrating their First Amendment rights against the federal Transportation Safety Administration ended with them giving the Albany International Airport’s longtime spokesman a degree of public chagrin.
Jason Bermas initially intended to video Ashley Jessica on Black Friday as she handed out leaflets urging travelers to opt out of the airport’s full body scanners and film security personnel as they conduct patdowns of passengers. But shortly after they arrived near the checkpoint on the second floor of the terminal, they were approached by Doug Myers, the airport’s director of public affairs, who ordered them to stop filming and accompany him down the escalator.
Bermas and Jessica agreed to follow Myers and an Albany County sheriff’s deputy, but Bermas, who was holding the camera, cited his First Amendment rights and politely refused to stop filming.
The group was then approached by Deputy Stan Lenic, who reviewed the situation and determined Myers had no right to either order the two to stop filming or prevent them from distributing the flyers. Myers, who appears noticeably irate in the 13-minute video posted on Youtube, responded by ordering airport staff to close off the second floor to anyone without a ticket.
“We can do that,” he says in the video, which had gotten more than 43,000 views by Wednesday evening. “Only ticketed passengers upstairs from now on, OK?”
The video also shows Myers complaining about Bermas and Jessica obstructing the terminal’s escalators. The spokesman also tries to implore Lenic to grab Bermas’ identification, a request the deputy refuses.
“Just so you know, OK? He’s not doing anything wrong,” Lenic tells Myers. “As far as New York state penal law ... he’s not doing anything wrong. If I was to ask him for his identification, he does not have to give it to me because he’s not doing anything wrong.”
Jessica, a graduate student from Toronto, and Bermas, who formerly lived in Fort Plain, discussed the incident on the Alex Jones Show, a syndicated radio program broadcast nationally. The program, which sometimes delves into conspiracy theories, has a libertarian audience.
Myers on Wednesday declined to discuss the incident or the widely circulated video and instead deferred comment to a statement released by the Albany International Airport Authority. In the statement, Chief Executive Officer John O’Donnell acknowledged the incident and said the only concern motivating Myers’ actions “was for the safety of the passengers and the public who were in the airport.”
Specifically, O’Donnell referred to the airport’s policy for non-commercial activities, which outlines a permit process that must be completed in advance. The permit application, among other things, indemnifies the airport and holds it harmless “from any and all liability arising out of activities related to the permit.”
“It had nothing to do with their message or the content of their handouts,” O’Donnell said in the statement. “The policy we have in place for filming and leafleting in the airport is intended to help us ensure that this type of activity does not interfere with normal airport operations or safety.”
Reached by phone Wednesday, Bermas blasted the authority’s permitting process as a layer intended to prevent people from exercising their constitutional rights. He credited Lenic for recognizing his rights and faulted Myers for being slow to realize that he was on the losing end of the argument.
“The bottom line is he could have backed off when I asserted myself,” he said. “Instead, he made himself out to be the villain.”