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In Portland, Ore., John Brennan has come to be known as “Sir Godiva” and the “Naked American Hero,” a motto emblazoned on T-shirts, mugs and beach totes featuring Brennan clothed in a beard, a pair of glasses and pretty much nothing else.
That, after all, is the image most people have in mind from the widely circulated photo of Brennan’s bare rear end, taken in April after he stripped naked in protest of a federal Transportation Security Agency search at Portland International Airport.
Last week, Brennan was acquitted on an indecent exposure charge after a judge in Multnomah County ruled that the 50-year-old website manager was engaged in a symbolic protest protected as free speech.
“It is the speech itself that the state is seeking to punish, and that it cannot do,” Circuit Judge David Rees said.
The verdict Wednesday brought at least a partial conclusion to a case that caused widespread angst at the airport. Some passengers were covering their children’s eyes, and their own, as Brennan calmly unveiled his opposition to TSA screening procedures, according to a report from the airport police. The case also drew international attention to the normally low-key computer geek.
But Brennan still faces a federal investigation by the TSA, which he said could impose a large fine or even place him on a no-fly list if agency officials conclude he unlawfully interfered with the airport screening process.
“The phrase I’ve come away with in all of this is ‘My liberty is more important than my modesty,'” Brennan said in an interview Friday. “I felt it was an effective and appropriate statement. It just felt like the right thing at the right time.”
Brennan is no stranger to public nudity. He has participated (along with several thousand others each year) in Portland’s well-known World Naked Bike Ride. And he has routinely opted out of the TSA’s advanced imaging technology screening, which briefly generates an image of passengers without benefit of clothing as they pass through airport security lines.
On the April day in question, he had gone through the full hand pat-down that is required for those who refuse the electronic screening and had tested positive on a routine swab for nitrates, a common ingredient in explosives.
“I thought, ‘Nitrates were involved in the Oklahoma City bombing; they think I’m carrying a bomb,'” Brennan said. “It all happened quickly and slowly at the same time. I saw someone putting on more gloves, and I saw someone gathering my property, and I thought, ‘They’re taking me to a screening room _ I can solve this problem.’ And I took off my clothes. I said, ‘I’m not carrying any explosives, here you go.'”
TSA officials appeared calm. “They asked me to stop taking off my clothes, and then to put them back on once they were off,” he said. “I said I believe I’m within my right to free speech, and just waited.”
Airport police took him into custody shortly thereafter.
On the witness stand, Brennan again emphasized that he was within his rights.
“I am aware of the irony of removing my clothes to protect my privacy,” he testified.
But although Oregon’s liberal state law on public nudity specifies that to be punishable it would have to involve sexual activity or intent to be illegal, the city of Portland’s ordinance is much more restrictive. It provides merely that a member of the opposite sex must have seen it in order for a crime to have occurred.
Prosecutors argued that anyone who improperly engaged in public nudity could later claim it was a protest to avoid prosecution.
Still, the judge ruled that Brennan was indeed engaged in legitimate protest. The courtroom, filled with more than two dozen supporters, erupted in applause as the verdict was handed down.
Brennan has launched a legal fund to help defend himself in the ongoing TSA investigation, and said he has heard from supporters across the country.
“I have struck a nerve,” he said. “The public doesn’t perceive the TSA as being effective. They perceive them as being expensive. At a time when we’re looking at budgets, they’re spending a lot of money and not having a lot of impact. And they’re doing it because the government is using fear and intimidation. You know, if I had kids, I’d rather see my kids getting a better education. I have a bumper sticker on my car that says, ‘Education is national security.'”
TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers said she could not comment on any pending federal investigation of Brennan.
“We respect the judge’s decision in this case regarding the Portland city ordinance, which is what the charge was,” she said. “We continue to focus our attention on TSA’s primary mission of keeping our nation’s transportation system safe from security threats.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services