Nicholas George, Student Interrogated in Airport for Arabic Flashcards, Can't Sue TSA, Judge Rules
Learning a foreign language? Keep your flashcards at home. A federal appeals court threw out a suit against the Transportation Security Administration and the FBI for detaining a former college student found in possession of Arabic flashcards. When Nicholas George was a student making his way back to Ponoma College in August 2009, officials at Philadelphia International Airport held him for 5 hours after finding him with flashcards that including translations for the words "bomb," "terrorist," and "explosion." So George sued them for a violation of his First and Fourth Amendment rights.
George said he was using the flashcards to study up for a study abroad program in Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan — citing a desire to learn the language to "serve my country using my Arabic language" — but TSA and FBI officials also found George with a book that took a less-than-favorable view of American policy in the Middle East. After searching George for explosive materials and coming up empty, George says he was subject to an intense interrogation, which included this conversation:
TSA AGENT: Do you know who did 9/11?
GEORGE: Osama bin Laden.
TSA AGENT: Do you know what language he spoke?
TSA AGENT: Do you see why these cards are suspicious?
George says a Philadelphia police officer arrested him and held him in the airport police station with no explanation. After officials determined he was not a threat or part of any pro-Islamic groups, George was released.
On Tuesday, Chief Judge Theodore McKee of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that George had the right to carry the flashcards and book, but the agents also had every right to detain him. McKee said their actions creeped upon "the outer boundary" of free-speech and unreasonable seizure rights. In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union argued that George's detention should've stopped when officials realized he had no explosives.
The TSA doesn't have the best reception right now, especially since one of their agents basically slut-shamed a teen girl last summer for — gasp! — wearing a tank top.
In the most recent decision, the judge maintains that officials were merely taking cautionary steps:
"Suspicion remained, and that suspicion was objectively reasonable given the realities and perils of air passenger safety. In a world where air passenger safety must contend with such nuanced threats as attempts to convert underwear into bombs and shoes into incendiary devices, we think that the brief detention that followed the initial administrative search of George was reasonable."