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The Texas TSA Bill Story – What Really Happened

I had the honor of giving the keynote address at the Third Anniversary Party for Texans for Accountable Government. They asked me to do this because, besides being a TAG member, I also was heavily involved in the effort to resist the TSA in Texas. During my talk, I told the story of what happened during our battle. Some of this is well known, but I had not yet put all of the details of my involvement in one place. The following is the speech I wrote out, even though I gave it more or less extemporaneously during the event…

Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you tonight, it is my honor to address such an esteemed group of people whom I can truly call my friends in the struggle for liberty. What I’d like to do tonight is tell you the story of our battle against the TSA: how it began, the opposition we faced, and why we gained a victory despite not getting a bill passed.

Everything began in the fall of 2010, when two public trends began to catch my attention. First was the increasing rate at which the TSA was subverting our civil liberties and right to travel through the x-ray and millimeter wave scanners. Second was the growing interest in the principles of nullification. So, having already developed a rapport with newly elected representative of the Lockhart area of Texas, David Simpson, we launched a conversation. Little did we know where it would take us.

I started with this: “What do you think about giving the TSA a swift kick in the rear?”
He said, “Tell me more…”
And so it began.

We formed a team of activists from all over Austin and beyond to formulate our strategy, research the issues, design the bills, get the word out, and build a coalition of groups to make this issue HUGE. We had students, lawyers, aids, web gurus, politicos and more involved with the singular goal of building our case against the TSA and getting the Texas government to take action.

By the start of the legislative session we were almost ready. We wrote a bill altering the statutory law regarding sexual assault to ban invasive patdowns. We wrote a bill that banned the full-body scanners straight away. We wrote a resolution outlining the legal precedent for stopping these searches, so that prosecutors would have a clear guide to exactly how the Texas and United States Constitutions defended our positions. All of these bills were team efforts, the guiding hand of many could be seen in each one.

All the while, grass-roots activists were building momentum as well. A huge coalition of groups from the entire political spectrum joined together as a chorus of voices, including We Are Change Austin, the Republican Liberty Caucus, multiple county-level Republican parties, the Libertarian Party of Texas, Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom, various Tea party groups, the American Civil Liberties Union, and of course Texans for Accountable Government. I don’t know of any issue in recent memory that has brought such a strange and diverse group of political groups together.

New strategies for spreading the message were developing that seriously surprised me as well. Morgana Gallaway, Jerri Ward, and others developed presentations to give to local service groups and community groups, like Rotary Clubs, the Austin Breakfast Club, campus groups, and more. They would attend their meetings and talk to them about the principles of freedom in the context of the ever-creeping tyranny of the TSA, and what they could do to resist peacefully. Through their efforts, many friends were made to our cause, and influence and credibility in the Austin community was won. I encourage us all to look to these kinds of opportunities in our future endeavors.

The activity on the internet was unparalleled, and I’m not sure I’ve seen any single issue that has quite matched the furor in recent years. A few examples: TSATyranny.com delivered critical updates about the latest abuses of the TSA, informing the public here in Texas and beyond. Wesley Strackbein’s work is superb and deserves great credit. A website I helped develop, StopAustinScanners.org, focused on educating people about TSA’s lack of standards and the health risks of the scanners themselves, and then finally activating people through a unique system I developed that allowed people to email the entire Texas legislature in one fell swoop. More on this later, but in short we were becoming a Statist’s worst nightmare.

None of these efforts went unnoticed. It didn’t matter where you looked, all over the country people were talking about the TSA in Texas. We were in the news constantly, from the Washington Post to the Orange County Register. We made the big headline of The Drudge Report no less than four times. But hilariously, the mainstream media seemed to keep asking themselves over and over again, “Can they even do this?”, as though they were wondering if mere peons could resist a Leviathan rising. And we answered confidently in their favorite politician’s own words, “Yes we can!”

Back on the legislative side, David Simpson was pouring everything he had into defending liberty in this issue and more. We were set back when the scanner bill and resolution got stuck in committees, but David did not lose heart. He worked tirelessly to build support for the legislation, bringing on over 100 co-authors to the original patdown bill. It whizzed through every house committee reading with unanimous support, and then it passed through the House by a unanimous voice vote. We were winning!

But on May 24th, the day the patdown bill was to be first read in the Senate, the insidious State struck back. The United States Department of Justice delivered a letter to the legislature threatening the State of Texas with legal action if they passed this bill:

“If HR 1937 were enacted, the federal government would likely seek an emergency stay of the statute. Unless or until such a stay were granted, [the] TSA would likely be required to cancel any flight or series of flights for which it could not ensure the safety of passengers and crew.”

Basically, the Federal Government threatened to make Texas a no-fly zone if they could not sexually assault us in order to “ensure our safety.”

During the hearing, Senator Dan Patrick, one of the Senate bill’s sponsors, defended HB 1937 and denounced the DOJ’s actions as insulting. Patrick, taking a great line from Texas history, called this a “Come and Take It” moment in front of the entire Senate.

Unfortunately, the Senate was spooked by this new involvement from Washington. The bill was not voted on that hearing. But we did not stop. Instead, we leapt into action once again and used the momentum we had for a HUGE surge. We pushed the “Come and Take It” Moment everywhere, especially at StopAustinScanners, and supporters from all over the US began using our site to deluge the Senate with emails. In a mere two days, over 1500 people used our email forms, resulting in over 30,000 emails sent to Texas Senators, and uncountable phone calls and faxes.

This push, and Rep. Simpson’s incredible effort, were a few of the major reasons for the continued support of the bill by an overwhelming majority of legislators. Eventually, the bill was placed on the agenda for the special session. But despite our best efforts, the machinations of the party leadership — Speaker Strauss, Lt. Gov. Dewhurst, and Gov. Perry — managed to thwart the passage of the patdown bill. As they have in the past, these corrupt individuals showed their true allegiances once again — demonstrating to the public that the State is not to be trusted.

Now, what have we learned from all of this. Let me sum up this story first by saying that despite not getting a bill passed, this is still a victory to be celebrated. We have sent serious tremors through the system, and we have yet to see where they will resonate in the future.

Practically speaking, this was one of our first forays into the legislative process for many of us, and boy did we learn a lot about that process. One of things we learned is that we were actually quite fortunate to get a bill in at all. Because of the relative shortness of the legislative session, most of the time the preparatory work for bills is done LONG before the session even starts – as in the summer before the session. We now know that we need to work out our agenda incredibly early and be ready to hit the ground running on the first day of the session.

Second, we learned what it takes to move a legislature. We need a friend in the legislature to get things done, and we need to learn to take cues from him or her as well. Without David, this issue would have gone nowhere. Also, we now know how to build web structures that activists can use to spread the word farther than before. From StopAustinScanners, we now have a baseline of the tons of data from our email projects that can help us understand what moves the legislators. We can gauge public support and know how effective we are at spreading the word at any given time. I anticipate that we will use this powerful tool to great advantage in the future.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, I want us to remember that the meta-issues are just as important as the legislation efforts. What is a “meta-issue”, you ask? It is the principle of liberty we want to convey to everyone as we publicly take on the State. Our goal is not merely to get a law changed, but to change the hearts and minds of the people. This is why we build coalitions, and demonstrate, and give presentations. This is why I wanted to take on the TSA in the first place, it is a wedge issue that everyone could get behind. And in the process of getting behind the issue, we can hold high the banner of principled liberty and win them over.

In the spirit of Murray Rothbard (and of loose quotations),

We are out to build a movement of knowledgeable libertarians, of men and women who will be deeply committed to hard-core libertarian principle.

We build single-issue coalitions where the issue advances the cause of liberty, like the TSA. In this way, our effectiveness will be multiplied, and the consciousness of our allies will be widened to see the consistency and merit of the broader libertarian perspective.

This strategy is of course a long-range one, but it is the only one that can possibly succeed. There are no shortcuts, no quick victories, it IS about thoughtful application of principle.

So, think about the things that made our efforts a success, ask yourself which tactics worked and which didn’t. Obnoxious slogans yelled through a megaphone? Or, carefully coordinated efforts built by us to share a new vision of liberty.

You made this work by deciding that making friends was more important than merely making a ruckus. Our chorus of voices made the message heard.

To conclude, let me offer one final word of encouragement. Consider for a moment the fight that State gave us. On our first attempt, it took a corrupt Lt. Governor, a corrupt Speaker of the House, a corrupt Governor, and the entire US Department of Justice to stop us, and yet we still won in the court of public opinion. Imagine what we can accomplish when we come back for round two.