An associate professor of sociology at Penn State Abington was removed from an American Airlines flight in Miami on Saturday and charged with disorderly conduct after ranting about U.S.-Venezuela relations and lighting a cigarette aboard the aircraft.
Karen Bettez Halnon, 52, who has worked for Pennsylvania State University since 1999, according to her biography on the university's website, said she was angry that the United States had declared Venezuela a national security threat earlier in the week and felt compelled to speak out.
"To me, that means war. That means more military aggression," she said Tuesday night, a day after arriving home from Miami. "It was very much a Henry David Thoreau moment. I felt compelled to speak out against the injustice against Venezuela."
A spokesperson for Penn State Abington said the school "is aware of Dr. Karen Halnon's behavior . . . and is looking into the matter."
Halnon said two Penn State undergraduates, her research assistants, were with her on the plane but not sitting with her. She said the students got home safely, but declined to say whether she had spoken with them since returning. She also would not discuss her employment status.
She apologized for her actions and said it was "bad judgment" for her to speak out while students were traveling with her. She and her students spent spring break at the Catholic University of Nicaragua, interviewing single mothers for a research project.
"It was not my intention to do any harm to the students," she said. "I deeply regret having tarnished the name of Penn State."
In a video of the incident captured by a fellow passenger and posted on the Miami New Times website, Halnon yelled, "The United States has declared war on Venezuela! Venezuela has been declared a national security threat!"
A nearby passenger yelled back at Halnon: "You're a national security threat!"
Seated and wearing a brown cap and white T-shirt, Halnon continued her rant, which she began about halfway through a Saturday flight from Nicaragua to Miami.
"My great hero Hugo Chavez nationalized the oil supply so that people would own the oil, not ExxonMobil," she said. "He told ExxonMobil to go away." Chavez was president of Venezuela from 1999 until his death in 2013.
A flight attendant warned Halnon: "The police are meeting the aircraft to take you out." Halnon waved her away. "I already know that," she said. "They are already arresting me so I'm going to tell you more."
She also lit a cigarette. She said she did that to show solidarity with other revolutionaries and to symbolize the United States as "a smoking gun." When the plane landed, Halnon was taken into custody, questioned, and arrested on disorderly-conduct and breach-of-peace charges.
Halnon, who graduated magna cum laude from Amherst College, according to her biography, received her doctorate in sociology from Boston College in 1995.
Before working at Penn State, she taught at Bowdoin College in Maine and the University of Vermont.
Halnon said FBI and airport security officials abused her and treated her badly when they took her into custody. She said she pleaded guilty and is awaiting paperwork on her penalty.
She said she had been arrested once before, for public drunkenness in Horsham. "I've had many, many sufferings in my life," she said.
Halnon said she had visited Nicaragua eight times since 2012 and has a long-standing interest in the Sandinista revolution. She has a picture of Fidel Castro and Chavez above her desk at work.
"My concern," she said of the U.S. declaration, "is that this will mean military action to take over oil supplies in Venezuela."