Five years ago, Nick George was going through security at Philadelphia International Airport when he was suddenly asked to step aside for additional screening. What followed was an unbelievable ordeal that ended with him being aggressively interrogated, marched through the airport in handcuffs, and locked in a jail cell for nearly five hours – all because he was carrying a set of English-Arabic flashcards for his college language class along with a book critical of U.S. foreign policy.
The ACLU took Nick’s case in 2010, citing the blatant First and Fourth Amendment violations he suffered, and on Friday a settlement was reached with the police department that makes clear that arbitrary arrests like these are illegal, even at an airport. Nick will receive some modest damages and the Philadelphia Police Department will be forced to amend its policies and provide periodic instruction to their officers that they have an independent duty to establish probable cause before an arrest.
Apart from the obvious violations of Nick’s civil liberties, this case speaks to larger issues of bias and profiling within TSA and beyond. Nearly 300 million people speak Arabic worldwide and there is nothing about it that should be suspicious in any way. Whether it’s a Middle Eastern Studies major like Nick, or just someone looking to learn another language for his or her own interest, we hope that the settlement of this case sends a message to law enforcement that stereotyping based on language is unacceptable and illegal.