The TSA Might Inspect Your Books Before Your Next Flight

After testing a new screening procedure in major cities, the Transportation Security Administration is reportedly preparing to roll it out across the country, but the new policy has some issues of serious contention, namely this: The TSA might inspect your books before your next flight. The new TSA policy allegedly requires passengers to remove all reading materials and snacks from their carry-on luggage and place them in a separate compartment for examination, as is done with laptops and shoes.

On its face, the TSA policy seems reasonable. Books are often thick enough to obscure the other contents of a person's luggage, which means that TSA agents may have to examine a reader's bag manually to determine that 1) those are books, and 2) they are not hiding something dangerous.

This was certainly the case when I flew out of LaGuardia in 2016 with a personal-item bag containing three or four thick paperbacks that showed up as a solid block of orange on the color-coded screen. (Really, I thought those tangled, bright-blue earbud cords were the cause for alarm, but what do I know?) The TSA agent quickly flipped through each of my books and handed the bag over to me, and I was free to go on into the concourse waiting area.

Although I was a bit worried that some small technicality was going to bar me from flying home, at no time during this encounter did I feel threatened by the TSA. But I'm a white woman who was carrying copies of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and The Obelisk Gate. If I had been, say, a Muslim woman reading a book about Syria, or an Italian economist in possession of — horror of horrors — mathematical equations, my experience could have been much different.

Both federal and state laws protect library patrons from having their records reported on, searched, or seized, because everyone has the right to read what they like without fear of judgement or retribution from any branch of the government. Many readers would feel that placing their self-help books, erotic literature, and books on physical, sexual, or mental health in view of the passenger queue might invite criticism or judgement from their fellow fliers and TSA agents.

But, as American Civil Liberties Union Senior Policy Analyst Jay Stanley points out, "someone reading Arab or Muslim literature in today’s environment has all too much cause to worry about discrimination." In 2015, a flight attendant refused to give a chaplain an unopened can of soda, claiming it could be used as a weapon, but handed the passenger next to her an unopened beer. Less than one year later, another flight attendant claimed she felt unsafe when a Muslim passenger asked to change seats, and a college student was removed from a flight after another passenger overheard him speaking Arabic to his uncle in Baghdad. Even Arabic flash cards have been enough to get a passenger kicked off of a U.S. flight.

The new book-examination policy could also affect traveling academics and lecturers. As one retired professor told Inside Higher Ed:

Academics are unsurprisingly big readers, and since we don't simply read for pleasure, we often read materials with which we disagree or which may be seen by others as offensive ... For instance, a scholar studying terrorism and its roots may well be reading — and potentially carrying on a plane — books that others might see as endorsing terrorism. In addition, because scholarship is international, I suspect academics are more likely than others to be reading and carrying material in foreign languages, which might arouse some suspicion.

John Kelly, the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, recently told Fox News that the TSA "likely will" expand its book-examination policy nationwide.