CNN Paula Zahn Now-Transcript
ZAHN: On this show, we put a lot of effort into bringing stories about racism and intolerance out in the open. That's why we followed the case of six Muslim clerics who were kicked off a jet because some people thought they were acting suspiciously. Well, it turned out the men were harmless, but they are very angry and they're suing. And get this, their lawsuit could affect every single traveler in this country. We asked Dan Simon to explain why.
DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A jury may someday have to decide what exactly happened on this airplane and whether passengers unfairly targeted six Muslim leaders removed from the plane. It started inside the terminal of the Minneapolis St. Paul international airport. That's where the six imams first drew attention. Several passengers claim they heard the group chanting Allah, Allah, then cursed the U.S. while boarding the U.S. Airways flight.
IMAM OMAR SHAHIN, REMOVED FROM PLANE: We did not chanting Allah, Allah or anything else while we are entering the plane or inside the plane. SIMON: Omar Shahin is one of the six imams kicked off the Phoenix-bound plane last November. He says the group did nothing wrong and nothing that could be perceived as suspicious. The airline thought it had good reason to deny them. A police report says some of the men asked for seat belt extensions even though flight attendants did not feel the men were overweight. There was also the imam's seating arrangement. They were scatted throughout the plane just like the 9/11 hijackers. The men were detained for several hours, but authorities as well as the airline realized the suspicions were unfounded and eventually let the men go.
U.S. Airways later apologized for what they characterized as an inconvenience, but the imams were angered by what they say was racial and religious profiling. Days later, they held a prayer rally and vowed to sue the airline. And now more than four months since the incident, they've made good on their promise. This is a new civil rights lawsuit filed in Federal court. It names U.S. Airways as a defendant. But in a surprising move, it names the complaining passengers as possible defendants. They're listed here as John Does as their identities have not been released by authorities. The suit didn't sit well with many around the country including those on Capitol Hill.
New York Republican Congressman Peter King is calling for legislation that would give immunity to passengers who report suspicious activity.
REP. PETER KING (R) NEW YORK: If we are going to be serious as a nation about fighting Islamic terrorism, then we have to stand by our people who come forward and report suspicious activity.
SIMON: But some express serious concern. Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson chairs the House homeland security committee and received audible jeers when he voiced skepticism about King's proposal.
REP. BENNIE THOMPSON (D) MISSISSIPPI: We should be tolerant and tolerant doesn't mean singling people out or having them arrested for no apparent reason other than the fact that they look different.
SIMON: Still in the end, Thompson voted in favor of it, as did nearly half of all Democrats. And not a single Republican in the House voted against it. The imams say they only want to target passengers who knowingly made a false report out of sheer discrimination. Was this a case of intolerance or might it simply reflect the unfortunate realities of a post-9/11 world. Dan Simon, CNN, San Francisco.
ZAHN: I'm going to talk with one of the imams in a few minutes, but first, Republican Congressman Peter King, who we just saw in Dan Simon's report. The full House has now passed the overall bill containing his whistle-blower protection for traveling. Always good to see you. Welcome.
REP. PETER KING (R) NEW YORK: Thank you, Paula.
ZAHN: All right. So you know what critics are saying about your legislation, that is has unintended consequences and what it could potentially lead to is racial profiling. Why isn't that a possibility?
KING: Paula, this is intended solely to protect people on planes and trains and buses who report suspicious activity. If they act in good faith, if they disclose what they believe to be the truth, then they shouldn't be prosecuted. They shouldn't be sued. They shouldn't be subject to civil lawsuits and that's what I'm saying. There's nothing about profiling at all. If someone says that person should be off the plane because they're Muslim, because they're black, because they're Irish, because they're Italian, that would be wrong.
ZAHN: But you use the phrase if they act in good faith. I want to put up on the screen now something that the Council on American Islamic Relations said about that. When a person makes a false report with the intent to discriminate, he or she is not acting in good faith. So how can you ensure that people will only report valid information and not make it up?
KING: Well, you can't. But a person would not have immunity if they intentionally made something up. No, obviously there has to be a concern about people lying or acting maliciously. But that's true in any case. And the fact is if someone does act that way, then they could be subject to a lawsuit. But the overwhelming majority of Americans are only going to report activities which they generally believe is suspicious. From what I know of what happened in Minnesota and a jury can determine that as far as the airline is concerned, that certainly did raise some suspicions. We live in a post-9/11 world and we have to be secure and we have to encourage citizens to come forward.
Think of it in terms of unintended consequences. Think of the chilling effect this would have on public spirited citizens if they thought they were going to be dragged into court every time they provide evidence of suspicious activity and it turns out the person was actually innocent. And we have people afraid to come forward.
ZAHN: You just mentioned that these imams raised some suspicions. Are you saying, then, that they shouldn't be allowed to sue any of the passengers they felt were racial profiling and simply reported these activities, which everybody seems to have difficulty proving whether they happened or not, just to get them arrested.
KING: Well, they would be able to sue, but unless they can show that these people willfully lied, acted in bad faith, the lawsuit is not going to go anywhere and it shouldn't and that's what I'm saying.
ZAHN: Congressman King, thanks for your time tonight. Appreciate you explaining to us.
KING: Thank you, Paula.