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His civics duty

A teacher who is fighting the NFL's policy of searching fans wants to set a good example for the students in his American government class.

By RODNEY THRASH
Published October 27, 2005


photo
[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Gordon Johnston, a Buccaneers season ticket holder, talks with the students in his honors American history class last week. Johnston, who is suing over the pat-down policy for Bucs games at Raymond James Stadium, recalls how he felt while being searched by soldiers 16 years ago at an airport in Bolivia.

  photo
[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Gordon Johnston, a civics teacher at Tampa Bay Technical High School, is challenging the National Football League’s policy of having fans patted down at games.
[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Jill Ricardo holds her 22-month-old son Rhett Ricardo’s arms as he gets patted down before entering Raymond James Stadium for a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game in September.

TAMPA - He stands at the front of portable No. 15 in a green short-sleeved dress shirt and faded navy blue Dockers. His tie, the one with the Statue of Liberty in the center, hangs two inches short of his waistline.

"What's the Fourth Amendment say?" he asks.

The students, ninth-graders at Tampa Bay Technical High School, begin mumbling.

They talk about the elderly and if they should be allowed to drive. They mention, too, the indictment of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Inevitably, the conversation shifts to the silver-haired man in front of them.

The students have seen him on television. They've read about him in the newspaper.

"What is it that you've seen about me in the news?" he asks.

"About the Tampa Bay Buccaneers," a girl sitting in the front row says.

"What am I against them doing?" he asks.

"Patting down all their fans," she says.

This is the drill every Friday in Gordon Johnston's American government class. Discuss current events. Get the students to think critically and apply what they've learned to real world scenarios.

"The Fourth Amendment is what they call the search and seizure law," says Johnston, 60, of Valrico. "Can a police officer just stop you on the street just to check you out?"

"No," the class says.

"They have to have what?" he asks.

"Probable cause," a girl in a denim jacket says.

"I might think it's reasonable and somebody else might think it's not, so who's to decide?" he asks.

"The courts," the class says.

Today, they will. A Hillsborough Circuit Court judge will consider Johnston's suit, which challenges the constitutionality of the National Football League's patdown policy at Raymond James Stadium.

***

Fans were advised to arrive early to the Sept. 18 home opener against the Buffalo Bills.

Johnston, a season ticket holder since 2001, and his wife, Rebecca, a math teacher at Bloomingdale High School, rushed from their church, Heritage Baptist Church in Lakeland.

Five days earlier, the Tampa Sports Authority, the board that operates Raymond James Stadium, voted to institute patdowns at Buccaneer games. Tampa was the last of the 32 NFL cities to do so.

The Johnstons didn't know how long they'd have to stand in line so they grabbed a quick bite to eat at a McDonald's along Interstate 4 and headed to the stadium on Dale Mabry Highway.

When Johnston arrived at the gate, he lifted his Hardy Nickerson jersey, the red one.

Johnston knew that he was going to refuse the search. He just didn't know how until he did it.

"See," Johnston said to a security guard. "You don't need to touch me."

There weren't any explosives or weapons, just skin.

The security guard patted Johnston anyway. He'd gone through airports, courthouses and sports venues. He'd had wands waved over the length of his body. He'd even been asked to take items out of his pocket. But this was different. Somebody was touching him for no good reason, in his opinion.

"To me, it's an invasion of privacy," he said without elaborating.

He proceeded through the gate to his seat in Section 304, near the pirate ship. He sat on the top row, where he'd always sat. He picked the top row so nobody behind him could spill things, throw things, or bump into him as they made their way to their seat.

"I get to stand up in the games without bothering anybody behind me," he said. "I like that freedom. I like having rights."

***

Johnston knows what it's like to live in a place where you don't have any rights.

That pretty much sums up his childhood.

Johnston grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich., in a poor, Polish Catholic neighborhood. His mother, Dorothy, was a stay-at-home mom. "An elementary PTA president type," Johnston says. His father, Gordon Sr., was a General Motors factory worker, a union man who was abusive.

"He was a very bitter man," Johnston says. "He would go into tirades. He'd beat me up for who knows what reason."

Johnston wandered the neighborhood for hours, just to get away from his father. He'd go to school early, even though he wasn't academically inclined, usually to avoid his father's wrath.

As a boy, he vacillated between wanting to be a police officer or a minister.

Other than that, he didn't dream big dreams. He didn't even think he'd go to college, though he was part of the first class to graduate from Michigan's Grand Valley State College in 1967. His goal was simpler: to get out from under his father.

***

Even as an adult, married and away from his father, there were times when he felt he had no say, no control.

For two decades, starting in the 1970s, Johnston taught in missionary schools in Latin America.

One summer, 16 years ago, he was traveling with his wife and three sons from Brazil to Michigan. There was a 5-hour layover in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.

Men in green military camouflage dotted the congested airport, standing guard with machine guns.

They motioned for women to go left; the men right.

Johnston can't remember what the men said. Something in Spanish.

He stood there as a pair of hands scanned his body, private parts included.

He said he felt humiliated. No, humiliated isn't the right word. Violated. That's what he felt. Violated.

"You feel like you don't deserve it, being treated like a criminal," he said.

He couldn't tell the guards that.

"What do you say?" he asked. "You're a guest in a foreign country with military machine guns there."

"I thought I would not like to submit myself or my sons to anything like this again."

***

The NFL, which ordered the patdowns at the start of the 2005 season, maintains that its intent is not to make fans feel like criminals, but to protect them from potential terrorist attacks.

People from around the world have chimed in, too. On Internet blogs such as flexyourrights.org, people praise Johnston and even offer him freebies. On a University of South Florida blog, jgetzand.blog.usf.edu/category/uncategorized/, a critic isn't as kind.

"This is just another person misusing the American court system," the blogger says. "There is nothing wrong with theses patdowns. During 9/11 we all saw what can happen if security is not tight enough. To sue someone who is trying to help you is ludicrous. These patdowns have been put in to protect the fans, and ensure a safe and fun environment. Most importantly, I can tell you from a personal standpoint that Mr. Johnston's viewpoint is not shared by all of the fans. I go to a number of Buccaneers games each year and I don't mind the patdowns because I can watch the games without having to worry about my safety. I guess everyone is entitled to their opinion, but is it really necessary to sue someone and try to force your opinion?"

Johnston has heard it all. Some have even asked him to stay away from RayJay and watch the games from home.

"I think if they don't feel safe at the stadium, they can stay home and watch the Bucs," he says. "I feel safe going in there without getting patted down or other things. I have felt safe all these years. Think of how many years since 9/11 we've gone to games without being patted down?"

***

There's another question Johnston asked himself before joining the American Civil Liberties Union in a suit against the Tampa Sports Authority and executive director Henry G. Saavedra: How can he, an American government teacher, teach his students one thing and do another?

"If I teach it," he says, "then I better practice it. If I teach that this is important, then I better show that it is important."

He says he does not want to be the face of this suit, but he has no other choice.

"Do I want to do it?" he asks. "No. But I feel I need to do it. I feel that I need to protect my rights and some other people's rights.

"If we don't stand up now, what will happen next game or next season? I believe in freedom. I don't want us to go down the wrong road."

Back at Tampa Bay Tech's portable No. 15, Johnston asks the students if they understand why he is against the NFL's patdown policy.

"You're old," the girl in the front row says.

Johnston, an ordained Baptist minister, can't argue with that.

"Okay," he says. "I'm old."

-- Rodney Thrash can be reached at 727 893-8352 or rthrash@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 26, 2005, 15:39:45]


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