ACLU Sues AMC Theaters for Ejecting Afghan American College Students from a Movie Theater

August 29, 2002 12:00 am

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LOS ANGELES — The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and the law firm of Ross, Dixon & Bell today filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of two American college students of Afghan descent who were ejected from an AMC movie theater in an Orange County mall for “”speaking in a foreign tongue”” and looking “”suspicious.””

“”This is a case of out-and-out discrimination,”” said Ben Wizner, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. “”As a nation, we long ago settled the issue of discrimination in public accommodations like movie theaters. Not only did we decide that it was immoral and contrary to fundamental American values, but we also made it illegal. AMC Theaters is now on notice that they are not above the law.””

According to the ACLU complaint, on May 4, Mohammad Sayed and Omar Zazia, 21-year-old students at Cal State Fullerton, sat in the theater waiting for the opening credits of the movie to start. They were talking together in both English and their native Pashto when they noticed a security guard staring at them intensely. The security guard later returned with an usher and asked them to leave the theater.

Sayed and Zazia were paraded through the crowded theater lobby by security and escorted out of the building. Their requests to speak with a manager were rebuffed. Once outside, they were met by more than a half-dozen police officers. One officer threatened the young men with arrest if they were to return to the mall later that night.

“”We couldn’t believe it,”” said Sayed. “”We had just been kicked out of the theater without a valid explanation and no refund. We had not committed a crime and we were not disruptive or disrespectful. We weren’t even allowed to speak with a manager.””

Zazia, the son of an Afghan army general whose family fled their native country in 1990, said his vision of the American dream was shattered that night. “”People should not be judged by the color of their skin or the way they talk,”” he said.

According to the legal complaint, it was not until the men reached the theater lobby that a guard informed Sayed and Zazia that they were being removed because they “”spoke in a foreign tongue”” and looked “”suspicious.”” Yet Sayed and Zazia were not the only theater patrons speaking in a language other than English; other patrons were heard speaking in Spanish, the ACLU said.

“”Sometimes I think that people in power get away with this sort of thing because they pick on people who are not aware of their rights,”” said Zazia. “”People who get mistreated are sometimes afraid to speak up. But one of the things that being an American has taught me is that you have to stand up for your rights. In other countries, you may not have any rights, but here you do, and I want people to know that you don’t have to sacrifice your dignity when you come to this country.””

Kevin Keiffer, an associate at the Orange County firm Ross, Dixon & Bell, said his firm added this case to its pro bono workload because “”we believe it is an extremely significant case.””

“”This case speaks volumes about the times we live in,”” he said. “” It reminds us that despite our troubled times, we cannot bow to fear. We cannot allow discrimination like that faced by Mohammad and Omar to become part of our everyday lives.””

AMC Theaters, based in Kansas City, MO, is one of the largest multiplex theater chains in the nation, with over 200 theaters throughout the country, and 33 in California alone.

The lawsuit seeks to compel AMC Theaters to take necessary steps to ensure that such discriminatory conduct does not occur in the future.

The legal complaint is online at

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