University then apologizes to student publicly, promises equal application of policy
Inspired by the many flags he had seen hung outside residential hall windows during his three years at George Washington University (GW), Mr. Abounaja, a junior biomedical engineering major, hung a Palestinian flag out his dorm window in October 2015. On October 26, a campus police officer came to Mr. Abounaja’s door, instructed him to remove his flag because of complaints the department had received, and filed a police report. The following week, Mr. Abounaja received a ‘Warning Letter’ from GW threatening future sanctions should he be named in a “subsequent report.”
In the following weeks, Mr. Abounaja attempted to discern what policy he violated, writing the university, calling, and emailing several times. “I felt like I was being singled-out, because of my heritage and the viewpoint of my speech, for something I’ve seen dozens of students, fraternities and other student groups do in my three years at GW. . . ,” Mr. Abounaja wrote.
“The events of the last week have left me feeling humiliated, upset and like I can’t even feel safe in my own dorm room. I’ve had finals this week and have found it very hard to study or to think about anything else.”
For weeks, Mr. Abounaja received no communication from GW explaining what rule he had allegedly broken. GW failed to provide him with a hearing or any opportunity to respond to the allegations against him.
On December 7, Palestine Legal wrote GW, explaining that the university’s actions appeared to be based on complaints by other students who disagreed with the viewpoint of Mr. Abounaja’s message. In its letter, Palestine Legal requested that the ‘Warning Letter’ be removed from Mr. Abounaja’s file, that GW issue an apology and clarify that its policies would not be discriminatorily enforced against students based on the viewpoint of their message or their national origin.
On December 10, after a large public outcry, GW President Knapp called Mr. Abounaja and apologized for GW’s treatment of Mr. Abounaja. Later that evening, the apology was posted on GW’s website, along with a statement that GW would revise its policies so that they were applied evenly.
The ‘Warning Letter’ issued by GW to Mr. Abounaja has been rescinded and removed from his file.