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The Unfriendly Skies: JetBlue/TSA Officials Pay $240,000 for Grounding Arabic T-Shirt

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January 5, 2009

When it rains, it pours… stories about discrimination at the airport. As AirTran Airways scrambled to make good after excluding a Muslim family from one of their flights last week, a discrimination case from 2006 was settled when two Transportation Security Authority officials and JetBlue Airways paid Raed Jarrar $240,000 to settle charges that they illegally discriminated against the U.S. resident based on his ethnicity and the Arabic writing on his T-shirt.

On August 12, 2006, Jarrar was at New York’s JFK Airport waiting to board a flight from New York to his home in Oakland, California. He was wearing a T-shirt that read “We Will Not Be Silent” in English and Arabic. While waiting in the gate area, Jarrar was approached by two TSA officials. One of them told Jarrar that he needed to remove his shirt because other passengers were not comfortable with the Arabic script. One of the officials told Jarrar that wearing a shirt with Arabic writing on it to an airport was like “wearing a T-shirt at a bank stating, ‘I am a robber.'”

Jarrar tried to assert his First Amendment right to wear the shirt, but TSA and JetBlue officials surrounded him and made it clear that he would not be allowed to board the plane unless he covered it up. Terrified of what they would do to him, Jarrar reluctantly covered up his shirt with a new T-shirt purchased for him by JetBlue.

But the story doesn’t end there — even after Jarrar covered his shirt, he was not allowed to board until JetBlue changed his seat and made him ride in the back of the plane.

The outcome of this case should send a clear message to all TSA officials and airlines that what happened to Jarrar was not okay. Perhaps the $240,000 settlement, which was paid out on Friday, January 2, can serve as a symbol of what the new year could bring — an end to racial profiling and speech discrimination, just maybe?

A video of Jarrar talking about the case is here.

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