American student arrested for Arabic flash cards in airport after TSA freaked out settles lawsuit

Nick George.


Nick George.

“Five years ago, the Philadelphia police thought that carrying Arabic-language flashcards was enough to warrant the arrest of an innocent traveler,” writes that traveler, Nick George.

With help from the American Civil Liberties Union, he reached a settlement today in a lawsuit brought against the Philadelphia police department. America is safe once again for people who like to study foreign languages and read books on foreign policy in airports.

Here's the text of the settlement [PDF] which awards him $25,000 and ends the long-running legal battle.

Nick was heading off to start his senior year at Pomona College in California, back in August 2009, when cops detained, aggressively interrogated, handcuffed, and locked him in a jail cell for nearly five hours at the Philadelphia International Airport.

Why was he targeted? Because Nick, a dual major in physics and Middle Eastern studies, was carrying a set of English-Arabic flashcards in for his language class--and Rogue Nation, a book critical of U.S. foreign policy that was written by a former Reagan administration official.

“It should go without saying that this is perfectly innocuous, First Amendment-protected activity,” says Nick. “Turns out, it doesn't.”

At the metal detector at airport security, Transportation Security Administration agents asked me to empty my pockets. I took the set of flashcards from my pocket and handed them to the officers. After I cleared the metal detector, they asked me to step aside for additional screening. One of them started rifling through the cards, and another took the book out of my carry-on. The minutes ticked by, and I got more confused about why I was being detained and more concerned that I would miss my flight. One of them called a supervisor.

After a half-hour delay at the security line, the supervisor showed up, and things turned from annoying to surreal. After looking at the book and flashcards, the supervisor asked me: "Do you know who did 9/11?" Taken totally aback, I answered: "Osama Bin Laden." Then she asked me if I knew what language Osama Bin Laden spoke. "Arabic," I replied. "So do you see why these cards are suspicious?" she finished.

Imagine going from being in line at the airport to having a TSA supervisor imply you had some connection with the worst act of terrorism ever committed against your country – all over the course of a few minutes.

I Was Arrested for Learning a Foreign Language. Today, I Have Some Closure. [aclu.org]

Here's the book that got him in trouble.

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