The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, acting on behalf of a Tampa Bay Buccaneers season ticket holder, filed a lawsuit late last month, seeking to stop officials from conducting “suspicionless” pat-down searches of all persons entering Raymond James Stadium to watch NFL football games.
That development came on the heels of a decision by an Ohio municipality’s decision not to conduct searches at Cincinnati Bengals games. Ultimately, the Bengals organization decided to bear the cost on its own in order to comply with an NFL mandate issued in September that all teams conduct such searches before admitting fans into their respective stadiums
Such controversies could continue as cash-strapped municipalities and quasi-governmental bodies seek to deflect the additional cost of security measures as well as the legal liabilities to the teams.
And then there are the fans.
“Football fans should not be forced to surrender our constitutional rights as the price of admission to the stadium,” said Gordon Johnston, a high school civics teacher, ordained minister and plaintiff in the ACLU suit. “I am challenging these pat-down searches because I don’t like the idea of myself, my wife and my friends being touched without our consent.”
The lawsuit, which was filed in Hillsborough County Circuit Court in Tampa, named the Tampa Sports Authority, which owns and operates the stadium and its executive director, Henry G. Saavedra as defendants.
The TSA had approved and implemented the policy imposed by the NFL, according to the ACLU.
The ACLU described the impetus for the litigation as follows. Johnson had renewed his season tickets for 2005 – 2006, for a cost of $869.20, and received his packet of season ticket information. Neither the renewal information nor the tickets informed him that he would be subject to a pat-down search when attending games. Johnson contacted the Buccaneers to object, but was allegedly informed that the Buccaneers would not refund the cost of season tickets for him or other ticket holders who objected to the pat-down policy.
Rebecca Harrison Steele, the ACLU’s West Florida Regional Director and a lead attorney in the case, suggested “there are far more effective ways to protect the security of football fans than sacrificing the constitutional freedom to be free from a pat-down search without probable cause or even any individualized suspicion. The NFL’s suspicionless search policy will not make fans any safer, but it will make us all less free.”
NFL vice president for security Milton E. Ahlerich countered that argument, telling the St. Petersburg Times: “We believe strongly that our security inspections are reasonable. We’re going to support keeping the patdowns in place because it’s the right thing to do for our fans.”
In addition to Steele, the ACLU’s legal team included Legal Director Randall Marshall and Tampa ACLU Cooperating Attorney John Goldsmith of the law firm of Trenam Kemker.
In Ohio, meanwhile, the legal fight was being pressed by Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, a lawyer and familiar irritant to the NFL. Portune was leading the county’s antitrust challenge against the NFL, claiming the league used its clout to secure a favorable lease of a municipally owned stadium.
In published reports, Bengals’ attorney Stuart Dornette suggested that the NFL policy “has to do with suicide bombers. That’s why the upper body pat-down.” Specifically he noted that an incident at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, where a man with a bomb strapped to his body blew himself up, got the NFL’s attention.
“If people can pick and choose whether they’re going to go through this process, that’s what creates an opening for this (potential) lack of public safety,” Dornette said.