IMAM'S LAWSUIT DEBATED ON CNN
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: 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.
ZAHN: Of course, there are two sides to every story. In a minute, I'll ask one of the imams and his attorney why they are suing and who exactly they want to sue. And then a little bit later on, what would Jesus really do about modern-day problems like the war in Iraq, AIDS and a bunch of other conflicts we face all over the world?
ZAHN: Welcome back. We're talking about the lawsuit filed by six imams kicked off a plane after some passengers complained about their behavior. The suit filed against U.S. Airways also names some of the passengers who complained as possible defendants. We just heard from Congressman Peter King who supports laws to protect passenger whistle-blowers. Now let's hear from one of the men removed from that plane. Imam Didmar Faja, also with us for his only TV appearance Omar Mohammedi, attorney for all six imams. Welcome. Omar, do you intend to seek out the passengers and sue who filed false reports about the six imams?
OMAR MOHAMMEDI, ATTNY FOR IMAMS REMOVED FROM PLANE: First, let me make this clear. This lawsuit is against the airline, and we'd like to correct the misconception that this lawsuit against -- it's not against the passengers.
ZAHN: All right, but you got to help me with the misconception here because I want to share with the viewers the actual wording from the imams' lawsuit against U.S. Airways and the metropolitan airports commission. Let's go to clause 21 which says -- possible defendants John Does were individuals on November 20, 2006 may have made false reports against plaintiffs solely with the intent to discriminate against them on the basis of their race, religion, ethnicity and national origin. So why is this clause in your suit if you don't plan to go after these folks who filed false reports? You're leaving the door open for that. That's what it looks like for me.
MOHAMMEDI: That clause is in the lawsuit because the law requires that clause to be in the lawsuit. If we take out criminal law about false reporting, then that clause would be out. If the new proposed bill states that any person who would willfully make a false report with intent to discriminate, we take that clause out. That's simple.
ZAHN: But until that happens, that clause is in there.
MOHAMMEDI: That's it.
ZAHN: Which, Imam Faja, is leading a lot of Americans out there who frankly aren't very comfortable at airports these days, to think that this will have a chilling effect on them. They're going to be afraid to come forward if they do see something suspicious. Do you understand that?
IMAM DIDMAR FAJA, REMOVED FROM U.S. AIRWAYS FLIGHT: Yes.
ZAHN: They are afraid they' might get sued. Can you hear me? Imam Faja, can you hear me?
FAJA: Yes, go ahead. ZAHN: So I don't know if you heard all of that, but I guess is it your intention to go after any of those passengers who might have made false claims of suspicious activity?
FAJA: Well, I think as Mr. Mohammedi explained, he said that we are going after the U.S. Airways. They are the company who actually -- we went through discrimination and we went through all of these things because of -- because of their act. So we're not going after the passengers right now.
ZAHN: But if you could figure out who those passengers were that made false claims, would you like to see them punished in some way?
FAJA: Well, that's something that the court will probably take care of it in order to show the right thing, in order to show the truth.
ZAHN: Omar, some in Congress have accused you of using the courts to terrorize Americans. One Republican memo circulated prior to the vote last week said this. We will prevent special interests lawyers from using creative legal theories to attack the well-meaning passengers who make reports. There are a lot of Americans out there who have good intentions. They want to make sure when they fly, that they're safe.
MOHAMMEDI: And no one is going after Americans who have good intentions. And actually we encourage people to report suspicious activities. See something, say something. If you don't see anything, don't create it and say something.
ZAHN: But you firmly believe that some of these folks practiced racial profiling and you think that's a possibility.
MOHAMMEDI: That is a possibility. I think they have a right to defend themselves but go back to the real issue. This lawsuit is not against the passengers. It's against U.S. Airways. 38 pages of the lawsuit state every single paragraph is against U.S. Airways. There's one paragraph, 21 that you mentioned --
MOHAMMEDI: That said if someone may have made a false report with intent to discriminate, willful, which is willful, then what's wrong with that? What is wrong with that? Are you chilling effect or people to report. No. People have a right to report if in good faith they're reporting suspicious activity. Everyone has a right to report suspicious activity. I would say one thing however. I would say one thing. The bill basically, it does not create anything -- the existing law exists about suspicious activity in good faith and we agree with that. However, it's creating a major problem is this. It says that Muslims basically they have no access to court because they are sympathizers of terrorist groups. That's not acceptable.
ZAHN: Well, we've got to leave it there tonight, plenty more to talk about at another visit. We'll be talking about that some time. Omar Mohammedi and Imam Faja. Thanks for your time. We'll be right back.