John F. Kennedy Airport was one of a handful of airports across the country that were transformed into ad hoc detention centers over the weekend after President Donald Trump signed an executive order restricting travelers and banning refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries. Untold hundreds of people from those countries flying into the United States were held for 20 hours or more, in some cases without food. Tens of thousands of people turned up to protest their detention and demand their release.
Along with the crowds of demonstrators came hundreds of volunteer attorneys, who offered free legal aid to the families of those held by the government. Throngs of reporters documented passengers’ tearful reunions with their families, and with reports that court orders limiting the ban were being ignored, what could be the beginnings of a constitutional crisis.
But the protests, the legal work, and the journalism at JFK all happened at the whim of the private companies that control the terminals at New York’s largest airport.
We learned this on Monday, when a reporter for the Voice was ejected from Terminal 4 and threatened with arrest by Port Authority police after they attempted to interview a family waiting for loved ones in the terminal.
It turns out that a private management firm, JFK International Air Terminals [JFKIAT], not the Port Authority, sets the rules in Terminal 4.
“Unfortunately, we do not allow media in the terminal,” a spokesperson from Marino Public Relations, which represents JFKIAT, told the Voice. We asked JFKIAT if they actually had any published rules they could show us governing public conduct in the Terminal. We’ll update the post if they get back to us.
“Think about it as a tenant landlord situation,” said a Port Authority spokesperson, explaining that they were powerless to dictate rules of access for members of the public. The rule may be JFKIAT’s but it is Port Authority Police who are enforcing the media ban.
Chris Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, says that for the purposes of First Amendment protection, airports aren’t as public as parks or public sidewalks. Courts have upheld the ability of airports to limit leafletting and other kinds of activities that could hinder free travel, even if they would otherwise be protected in a public space.
But airports, as facilities open to the general public, aren’t exactly like private businesses either.
“What is otherwise a generally public area like a park, can’t completely be removed from the protections of the First Amendment by allowing a private entity to run the place,” Dunn says.
The confusion at JFK arises in part from its convoluted ownership status. The facility is owned by the City of New York and administered by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. But the Port Authority in turn leases individual terminals to various airlines, and in the case of Terminal 4 — where most of the travelers were being held and the site of the largest demonstrations — to JFKIAT.
According to Dunn, even though it’s a private company, JFKIAT’s lease doesn’t give it carte blanche, and the Port Authority can’t simply wash its hands because they’ve signed a lease. “The starting point is: do they have any actual rules? They don’t just get to make things up,” Dunn says.
On Monday, JFKIAT staff and Port Authority police both told reporters that they would enforce a “no filming” rule and reporters were instructed at various times not to conduct interviews and not to photograph inside the facility. Some working members of the press, thwarted by the restrictions, left after being prevented from doing their jobs. Later in the day, the group of volunteer attorneys who have set up shop in the airport tweeted that some of their colleagues were also being forced out (they later deleted the tweet).
Other reports on Twitter suggested that Terminal 8, which is operated by American Airlines, had also tried to interfere with activity by press and lawyers in their terminal, though those restrictions were later lifted. Messages to American Airlines had not been returned by press time.
Dunn said that these rules are problematic, unless the those rules are enforced equally against reporters and selfie-snapping tourists alike.
“I would guess that a lot of people were taking photographs in the terminal that day,” Dunn says, “and they certainly can’t single out journalists or lawyers for special photography rules.”
A different Port Authority spokesperson noted that JFKIAT’s position was not necessarily the one the Port Authority favors, but suggested there wasn’t much they could do: “The Port Authority’s policy is to let the media into the terminals and we pressed JFKIAT – which operates Terminal 4 – to do so.”
Over the weekend, as the detentions mounted, Governor Andrew Cuomo, who appoints New York’s representatives at the Port Authority, directed the agency to “explore all legal options to assist anyone detained at New York airports, and ensure that their rights are protected.”
Later, when Port Authority police blocked protesters from entering the Air Train to Terminal 4 in the name of public safety, the governor ordered them to stand down and allow the demonstrators through. “The people of New York will have their voices heard,” Cuomo said in a statement.
A spokesman for Governor Andrew Cuomo, Jon Weinstein, said on Monday that the governor was concerned about the expulsions at JFK and was “looking into” the situation. A followup call on Tuesday was not returned.
All this underscores the precariousness of the activism and the reporting that has helped shine light on the effects of Trump’s ban. Most of it would have been impossible under JFKIAT’s stated restrictions. What will happen when they decide to enforce them?
UPDATE: After press time, spokesman for JFKIAT, Ross Wallenstein, with Marino public relations, relayed a message attributed to JFKIAT’s president and CEO, Gert-Jan de Graaff.
The statement reads, in part, that the company “has the utmost respect for the press and will continue to promote policies and procedures in order to facilitate a safe, smooth and seamless experience for passengers … an area has been designated adjacent to the Terminal 4 premises, where members of the press have traditionally been able to news gather and report without incident or issue.”
The “area” the statement references is the parking lot outside of Terminal 4.