Friday, March 28, 2008

The Nipple Rings and the TSA Response

Mandi Hamlin, the 37-year-old Texas woman who was made to use pliers to remove a nipple piercing by TSA screeners in late February, is being represented by Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred, who has called for a TSA apology to Hamlin.

She's going to get it -- or at least a courtesy call with an acknowledgment that TSA procedures as followed in this case need to be modified.

TSA spokeswoman Ellen Howe told me this afternoon that the agency has already spoken with Allred, and that arrangements are being made for TSA director Kip Hawley to call Mandi Hamlin personally.

Howe also said that based on the Hamlin case the TSA is changing its procedures to allow for a screener of the same sex to conduct a visual inspection of a private body part, such as a nipple with a piercing that has set off the metal detector alarm, if requested by the person who has triggered the alarm. Until now, the TSA operating procedures -- the details of which are classified -- prohibited screeners from inspecting or patting down private parts of the body such as genitalia and female breasts.

"We reviewed the situation and it appears [the screeners] did properly follow the procedures as they exist," Howe said. "They didn't have in their procedures the option to visually inspect."

She added, "We are going to acknowledge that the procedures caused difficulty and we are going to make a change that will enable the procedures in the future to meet security needs while providing additional flexibility for this kind of screening situation," Howe said.

"We had a good conversation with Gloria Allred yesterday and we definitely understand the woman's distress," Howe said.

Hamlin had said that she could hear male screeners "snickering" as she stood behind a curtain using the pliers to remove one of the nipple rings. The TSA's Howe said there was no indication that any routine checkpoint chatter overheard was directed at Hamlin, however.

At the press conference, Allred and Hamlin seemed to present a pretty straightforward case of a woman being arbitrarily humiliated by TSA screeners at Lubbock, Texas.

A video clip of the press conference is linked to at Allred's Web site, under "Featured News."

In November 2004, by the way, I wrote about a widespread problem of women being humiliated and arbitrarily patted down by airport screeners, and the TSA ultimately dealt with the problem. That story was initially prompted by an e-mail from the singer and actress Patti LuPone, who told me in subsequent conversations how she'd been humiliated and almost arrested when she refused to remove her blouse in public at an airport checkpoint.

(This has nothing to do with the subject, but Patti, by the way, opened on Broadway last night starring in the revival of "Gypsy," to great reviews.)


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