Judge: Naked man at TSA screening protected by free speech

Judge: Naked man at TSA screening protected by free speech »Play Video
In this April 17, 2012, photo taken at Portland International Airport, shows John E. Brennan standing naked after he stripped down while going through a security screening area, as a protest against airport security procedures. (AP Photo/Brian Reilly)

PORTLAND, Ore. — An Oregon man kept his clothes on when he went through court security on his way to his trial, unlike the episode that got him there: stripping at Portland's airport to protest security measures he found invasive.

On Wednesday, a judge ruled that John Brennan did not break the law when he stripped down at PDX back in April. Brennan was found not guilty of an indecent exposure charge filed after the incident.

Judge David Rees ruled that Brennan's nudity was an act of protected speech.

"It some way or another the court system works and nudity is protected speech in Oregon," Brennan said after the trial.

On April 17, Brennan arrived at PDX intending to take a business trip to San Jose, Calif. He works with groups in Silicon Valley and flies out of Portland International Airport about once a month.

When he reached the gate, he declined to go through the airport's body scanners, instead choosing the alternative metal detector and body pat-down. After the pat-down, Transportation Security Administration officer Steven Van Gordon detected nitrates on the gloves he used to check Brennan.

"For me, time slowed down," Brennan said. "I thought about nitrates and I thought about the Oklahoma City bombing."

Brennan said before his trial that after months of angst every time he went through security, the nitrate detection was the final straw for him, a wordless accusation that he was a terrorist.

So he took off all his clothes.

"I was mostly motivated by the absurdity of it all. The irony that they want to see me naked, but I don't get to take off my clothes off," he said. "You have all these machines that pretend to do it."

A Multnomah County prosecutor said if Brennan's actions are considered protected by the First Amendment, then anyone who is arrested while nude can also claim that their actions are a protest.

Prosecutors had TSA officers testify to try and show that Brennan was never intending to protest. However the judge didn't buy it, saying the trial is not about the process of TSA searches, but simply about whether nudity is protected free speech.

The law says that naked people are only breaking the law if they're having sex in public or got undressed "with the intent of arousing the sexual desire" of another person.

As Brennan left the stand Wednesday, he said that his protest was also intended to give the TSA an idea of the effect its policies had on travelers, especially the body-scanners that produce images of passengers without clothes on.

"I wanted to show them it's a two-way street," he said. "I don't like a naked picture of me being available."

KATU reporter Joe English and Associated Press reporter Nigel Duara contributed to this report