For Immediate Release
ACLU Sues Over Unconstitutional Airport Detention and Interrogation of College Student Carrying Arabic Flashcards
Incident at Philadelphia Airport Highlights Misdirected Security Efforts, Says ACLU
PHILADELPHIA - The
American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Pennsylvania today filed
a lawsuit on behalf of Pomona College student Nicholas George, who was
abusively interrogated, handcuffed and detained for nearly five hours
at the Philadelphia International Airport because of a set of
English-Arabic flashcards he was carrying in connection with his
college language studies.
"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," said Ben Wizner, staff
attorney with the ACLU National Security Project. "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
George was on his way back to school
in California in August 2009 when he was prompted by Transportation
Security Authority (TSA) agents to empty his pockets at an airport
security screening point. After producing a set of English-Arabic
flashcards, which each had an English word on one side and the
corresponding Arabic word on the other, George was detained by the TSA
agents in the screening area for 30 minutes. A TSA supervisor then
arrived and aggressively questioned George, asking him questions such
as how he felt about 9/11, whether he knew "who did 9/11" and whether
he knew what language Osama bin Laden spoke.
A Philadelphia police officer then
arrived, handcuffed George and led him through a terminal to the
airport police station where he was left in a locked cell for two hours
in the handcuffs, and for two more hours with the handcuffs removed.
George was then interrogated for half an hour by two FBI agents. He was
never informed of why he was handcuffed, detained or arrested, and he
was not informed of his rights. By the time he was released, George had
long since missed his flight and was told by airline officials that he
would have to wait until the next day to travel.
"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."
The lawsuit charges that the TSA
officials, the Philadelphia police and the FBI violated George's Fourth
Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure and his First
Amendment right to free speech. The ACLU filed the lawsuit on George's
behalf in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of
Pennsylvania, against the three TSA officers, two FBI agents and two
members of the Philadelphia Police Department who were involved in his
detainment and interrogation.
"It should not have taken four hours
to determine that Nick George was not a security threat. In fact, it
should not have taken four minutes," said Mary Catherine Roper, staff
attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "He was handcuffed and held
behind bars for no reason. These agents need to be held accountable for
Lawyers on the case are Wizner and
Jonathan Manes of the ACLU, Roper of the ACLU of Pennsylvania and David
Rudovsky of the law firm Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg, LLP.
The ACLU's complaint is available online at: www.aclu.org/national-
A video featuring Nick George and Ben Wizner talking about the case is at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conserves America's original civic values working in courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in the United States by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.