A lawsuit against Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff claims the safety of the flying public is being put at risk by the Federal Air Marshal Service which prohibits employees from speaking publicly about potential security lapses.

The suit on behalf of Air Marshal Frank Terreri was filed yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union, claiming the “gagging” policy is a clear violation of First Amendment rights. Terreri has been involved in an ongoing dispute with officials, as he looks to amend several policies he thinks are endangering the public.

“The Department of Homeland Security is not only infringing on Frank Terreri’s right to free expression, they are actually jeopardizing the public’s safety by limiting the speech of whistleblowers,” said Peter Eliasberg, managing attorney of the ACLU of Southern California. “Terreri is prohibited from participating in informative debate about the safety of our airline industry, which makes all of us less secure.”

Terreri, a 15-year veteran of law enforcement including three as a federal air marshal in Los Angeles, is restricted from discussing details related to his job that could enhance the security marshals provide.

Federal rules say marshals may not “release or divulge investigative information or any other matters pertaining to the FAMS.”

According to the ACLU, Terreri tried to work within the system to address his concerns about aviation security, detailing security lapses within the agency in two letters to the director. After he sent a private e-mail to another air marshal raising concerns about an air marshal profile in People magazine, Terreri was taken off active flight duty and placed on administrative duty.

“Everyone’s heard that you can pick out a federal air marshal from a mile away because they look like a 1950s FBI agent. Frank stuck his neck out to try to improve the way his agency works and those in charge found any excuse to punish him. This lawsuit will shed light on Homeland Security policies that don’t contribute to safety, but rather violate constitutional rights,” Eliasberg said.

In a videotaped statement, Coleen Rowley, an FBI whistleblower noted for her 13-page memo blasting the agency for hampering a probe into 9-11 terror suspect Zacarias Moussaoui, said the federal policies left Terreri no other choice but to sue.

“Terreri wants to tighten holes in the security of the commercial airline industry. This is infinitely important to the safety of airline passengers and, ultimately, everyone,” Rowley said. “But the overly restrictive policies of the Federal Air Marshal Service that he must follow are putting us all in danger and prohibiting the dissemination of important information and debate.”

She continued: “Federal employees who want to expose the truth should not have to risk their careers. Employees who need to report fraud, abuse or mismanagement to uphold their constitutional oaths and to try to improve our safety and security should be encouraged and not prevented from doing so. Mr. Terreri is a defender of both the public’s safety and our civil liberties.”

According to MSNBC, the Federal Air Marshal Service declined comment on the specifics of the case, saying the agency hadn’t yet seen the suit. But on the issue of whether or not air marshal policies restricting speech were unconstitutional, spokesman David Adams said, “We never violate anybody’s civil rights; however, we are strictly adhering to Department of Homeland Security policies on these issues.”

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