Thursday, June 28, 2007

Flying imams seek to block media coverage

A federal judge overseeing a lawsuit filed by six Muslim men who were removed from a US Airways flight last fall has declined to limit public access to the case.

Omar T. Mohammedi, a New York attorney for the six Muslim scholars, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he sought limited media access because he felt some of the coverage of the case has been biased against his clients.

"When you think of the media, and the way they have been portraying this case, it has not been very helpful. It has been biased," Mohammedi said. "That has caused a lot of stress, a lot of stress on our clients, as well as made it difficult for us to handle this case ... in a manner that it should be handled."

Mohammedi's clients are six imams - Islamic religious leaders - who were removed from a US Airways flight in Minneapolis last fall after passengers reported what they thought was suspicious behavior. The imams, who were handcuffed and questioned, claim the airline discriminated against them and violated their civil rights.

The complaint seeks an undisclosed amount of money for punitive and compensatory damages. Besides US Airways, the lawsuit names other defendants including the Minnesota Metropolitan Airports Commission, which owns the airport, and John Does, who could later be identified as passengers.

In a letter dated Tuesday and addressed to Mohammedi, U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery noted that Mohammedi had requested that the court remove members of the media from an electronic distribution list, bar members of the media from attending hearings, and hold proceedings in closed session.

"The Court declines to treat this case in the extraordinary manner that you request," the judge wrote. She added that the public and press have an interest in full access to judicial proceedings under the First Amendment.

"You have provided no legal authority supporting your request to limit public access to this case," Montgomery wrote. "While it is regrettable that anonymous individuals have threatened violence, the Court Security Officers will insure that the United States Courthouse here in Minneapolis is secure."

The judge's letter was entered in the case file, and it noted that further communications on the matter should also be filed through the court's electronic database.

The letters previously submitted on the issue were filed off the record and were not made public. Judge Montgomery said through a law clerk that she would have no comment beyond her letter.

An attorney for US Airways said the airline would not comment.

Mohammedi said he and his clients have received death threats, partly because of biased coverage by most media outlets. He cited a March 30 AP story and headline that he claimed did not accurately reflect his conversation with a reporter.

The AP story in question explored whether the lawsuit would discourage future airline travelers from speaking up when they see something unusual. The story included information from Mohammedi, as well as different points of view from security officials and from an attorney who offered to represent passengers who might be named as defendants in the lawsuit.

"We are just asking the media to be balanced and reflect what was said ... and to let justice take its course," Mohammedi said Wednesday. "I'm asking the media to be a little bit more responsible in reporting the facts of the case. That actually would prevent a lot of issues."

The imams had attended a conference in Minneapolis of the North American Imams Federation, and were heading to Phoenix. Five were from the Phoenix-Tempe area, while one was from Bakersfield, Calif.

The group has said that three of the men said their normal evening prayers in the airport terminal before boarding the plane, and that they entered the aircraft individually, except for one member who is blind and needed a guide. Once on the plane, the men did not sit together.

A passenger raised concerns about the imams through a note passed to a flight attendant. According to officials, witnesses reported some of the imams made anti-American comments about the war in Iraq and that some asked for seat belt extensions even though a flight attendant thought they didn't need them.

Hat tip Powerline

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