College student sues U.S. for detainment at Pennsylvania airport

By Spencer S. Hsu
Thursday, February 11, 2010

A Pennsylvania man sued the federal government Wednesday, alleging that he was abusively interrogated, handcuffed and detained for five hours at Philadelphia's airport in August because he carried a set of English-Arabic flashcards as part of his college language studies.

Nicholas George, 22, of Montgomery County, Pa., a senior majoring in physics and Middle Eastern studies at California's Pomona College, charged that three Transportation Security Administration officers, two Philadelphia police officers and two FBI agents violated his constitutional rights to free speech and freedom from unreasonable seizure.

A Justice Department spokesman in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. The Philadelphia police had no immediate comment.

Representatives of the FBI and the TSA said they would not comment on pending litigation.

A federal official familiar with the matter, discussing the case on the condition of anonymity, said that TSA officers observed "anomalous" behavior by George before he entered the checkpoint. The official said his "erratic" conduct escalated upon screening and, along with other unspecified factors, that led officers to call police to investigate further.

"Arresting and restraining passengers who pose no threat to flight safety and are not breaking any law not only violates people's rights, but it won't make us any safer," said Ben Wizner, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project. The ACLU and its Pennsylvania chapter are representing George.

The suit gives this account:

George was returning to school when TSA screeners saw his flashcards. A supervisor asked him his views on the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; whether he knew who carried them out; and what language Osama bin Laden speaks. The supervisor added: "Do you see why these cards are suspicious?"

FBI agents asked George whom he met during his travels, which included a semester as an exchange student in Jordan and visits to Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Malaysia and Indonesia. Under questioning, George said he was not a terrorist, a communist, a Muslim or a member of any campus "pro-Islamic group." FBI agents told him he was not a real threat and released him.

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