On a recent flight to New York, Draco Slaughter, 75, was arrested on terrorism-related charges. His crime? He made a bad joke to a flight attendant. Slaughter did not exactly slay his audience. The joke not only resulted in a federal criminal charge but could result in seven years incarceration — the ultimate bomb of a joke.
Across the country, travelers are greeted with signs and announcements at airports warning them not to make jokes about bombs or weapons. It has become commonly known that making such jokes is a federal offense. It isn’t. There is no Comic Relief Act that makes joking a violation of the U.S. Code. It is an urban legend intentionally created by threatening arrests and twisting existing laws. Even actual prosecutions are rare. In the meantime, there is not a single case of a terrorist warming up his victims with a lead-in joke.
Government websites such as the TSA’s expressly warn that “jokes … are not tolerated” and “can result in criminal or civil penalties.” However, federal law prohibits giving false information “willfully and maliciously, or with reckless disregard for the safety of human life.” This is an anti-hoax — not an anti-joke — law designed to punish people who want to cause panic with false reports. Most joke cases involve people who clearly indicate at the time that they are joking.
Clueless vs. humorless
In Slaughter’s case, he joked that “there could be a bomb in there” when a flight attendant found his bag. Unable to pay a ridiculous $50,000 bail, he remained in jail. He was not charged with illegal jokes but falsely reporting an incident. Prosecutors pretended that his joke was an actual report of a bomb and then charged him for essentially not having a bomb.
Dozens of travelers are reportedly arrested each year in airports for making jokes. Most of these arrests are cases of the clueless meeting the humorless.
For example, in April, Qatari diplomat Mohammed al-Madadi, 27, decided to try to smoke during a United Airlines flight from Washington to Denver. When he emerged from the bathroom, he was confronted by a flight attendant who asked what he was doing. Smelling of cigarette smoke, al-Madadi joked that he was just trying to light his shoes on fire (a clear reference to would-be shoe-bomber Richard Reid). The flight attendant alerted the crew of a terrorist threat — resulting in the military scrambling two F-16 jets, a briefing of President Obama and al-Madadi being held for questioning. (Al-Madadi has been sent back to Qatar — presumably by boat.)
Reinforcing the mythology
We are now seeing similar cases around the world. In Britain in May, Paul Chambers was convicted and fined for making a joke on Twitter to friends after his flight was delayed by snow. He sent the message, “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your s—- together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!” Once again, he was not charged with bad jokes but sending a “menacing” message.
By the time a judge gets around to throwing out one of these usually meritless cases, the point has been made.
Ironically, news media reports of such abuses only reinforce the urban mythology — sending the message that even obvious jokes can be grounds for arbitrary arrest. Even when proven unlawful, the arrests deter citizens by threatening them with the loss of money and time in court.
It is time to tell the public the truth about airport jokes. If we are going to criminalize bad humor, we should have the good sense of passing a law first.
Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.