The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a college student who was arrested at an airport for being in possession of Arab language flash cards.
The ACLU has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a college student who was interrogated then detained for nearly five hours last summer at Philadelphia International Airport. College student Nick George was flying from his hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania back to California to attend the Fall semester at Pomona College when he was taken aside by TSA (Transportation Security Administration) agents at a security screening point and asked to empty his pockets.
After emptying out any metal contents, he produced some English-Arabic flashcards which aroused the suspicion of agents.
George was then aggressively questioned in the public screening area for another 30 minutes by a TSA supervisor who asked him to explain his feelings about the 9/11 attacks, whether he knew who had been responsible for them and what language they spoke.
Shortly after, a Philadelphia Police Officer arrived and George was handcuffed and detained in a cell for two hours while officials poured over his possessions and made phone calls.
Ben Wizner, staff attorney with the ACLU National Security Project had this to say:
Arresting and restraining passengers who pose no threat to flight safety and are not breaking any law not only violates people's rights, but it won't make us any safer. It may actually make us less safe, by diverting vital resources and attention away from true security threats, Nick George was handcuffed, locked in a cell for hours and questioned about 9/11 simply because he has chosen to study Arabic, a language that is spoken by hundreds of millions of people around the world. This sort of harassment of innocent travelers is a waste of time and a violation of the Constitution.
He was also questioned by FBI agents who asked him whether he had become an "Islamist" or had joined any "communist" groups on campus.
The 22 year-old was never informed of his rights nor offered an attorney and had to miss his flight due to the lengthy detention.
I feel the TSA acts like it has a blank check as long as what it does is in the name of fighting terrorism, Said George. Of course, the TSA's job is to keep us safe -- but they have to follow the Constitution and respect rights.
A senior student with a Physics major, George had considered a career as a U.S diplomat and had brought some studying material to look over during the flight.
I want to serve my country using my Arabic language, George told CNN. And it just seems crazy to me that for that I was arrested and treated like a criminal.As someone who travels by plane, I want TSA agents to do their job to keep flights safe. But I don't understand how locking me up and harassing me just because I was carrying the flashcards made anybody safer, said George. No one should be treated like a criminal for simply learning one of the most widely-spoken languages in the world.
He was eventually released and forced to fly the next day but was offered no explanation nor apology.
For their part, the three agencies named in the suit refused to comment.
One TSA agent, speaking on condition of anonymity, claimed George was exhibiting "anomalous behavior" prior to reaching the check point and “was referred for additional screening, where his behavior escalated further".
Of the 200 flashcards in his possession, a small number contained words such as "bomb", "explosion" and "terrorist" which George explained were words commonly found in Arabic media:
They asked me why I had those words. I told them honestly because I had been trying to read Arabic news media, especially Al-Jazeera, and these are words that come up when you read the news about the Middle East.
George, along with the ACLU and the Philadelphia branch of the ACLU are suing the TSA, FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigations) and Philadelphia Police for violation of 1st amendment rights right to free speech 4th amendment rights of freedom from unreasonable search and seizure and excessive use of force
Official complaint found here