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PHILADELPHIA – The American Civil Liberties Union will argue tomorrow in federal appeals court on behalf of Nick George, a college student who was interrogated, handcuffed and detained for nearly five hours at the Philadelphia International Airport in 2009 because he was carrying a set of English-Arabic language flashcards for his college studies.
The lawsuit charges that Transportation Security Administration agents, FBI agents and Philadelphia police officers violated George’s Fourth Amendment right to freedom from unreasonable seizure and his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. It includes additional claims against the U.S. government. Both the U.S. government and the federal agents moved to dismiss the case, and in September 2011 the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied those motions. The federal agents have appealed that decision. The U.S. and the Philadelphia police officers did not appeal, and the case against them will move forward regardless of the outcome of this appeal.
“Nick George didn’t pose a threat to flight security and locking him up simply for studying a certain language is clearly unconstitutional,” said Zachary Katznelson, the ACLU attorney who will argue the case before a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. “Americans don’t give up their constitutional rights when they fly. This kind of unlawful action does nothing to keep us safer, and instead diverts attention from actual threats.”
George was on his way back to Pomona College in California when he was asked to empty his pockets at an airport security screening point. After producing the flashcards, George was detained by two TSA agents in the screening area for 30 minutes. A TSA supervisor then arrived and aggressively questioned George, asking him whether he knew “who did 9/11” and what language Osama bin Laden spoke.
A Philadelphia police officer arrived and handcuffed George, then marched him through the terminal to the airport’s police station. George was locked in a cell for four hours – the first two hours still in handcuffs – and then interrogated for a half-hour by two FBI agents. He was never told why he was detained or informed of his rights. After a nearly five-hour ordeal, George was finally released without charge or apology but had to wait until the next day to travel.