Victory! GWU apologizes to student for Palestinian flag censorship

Source: Ahmad Al-Bazz via Flickr

Palestine Legal welcomes George Washington University President Steven Knapp’s apology to pre-med student Ramie Abounaja for the college’s discriminatory removal of his Palestinian flag.

In a statement released this evening, President Knapp said, “I have personally apologized to the student for this unfortunate incident and assured him that the university’s actions were in no way a response to his expression of his beliefs or opinions.”  

The ‘Warning Letter’ issued by GWU to Ramie has been rescinded and removed from his file.  The university has also agreed to revise its policy to ensure that it is applied consistently.

Inspired by many flags he had seen hung outside residential hall windows during this three years at GWU, Ramie hung a Palestinian flag out his window last October.  On October 26, a campus police officer came to Ramie’s door, instructed him to remove his flag because of complaints the department had received, and filed a police report. The following week, Ramie received a ‘Warning Letter’ from GWU, threatening future sanctions if his behavior continued. In the following weeks, Ramie attempted to discern what policy he violated, writing the university, and calling and emailing several times.

On December 7, Palestine Legal wrote GWU, explaining that the university’s actions appeared to be based on complaints by other students who disagreed with the viewpoint of his message.  In its letter, Palestine Legal requested that the ‘Warning Letter’ be removed from Ramie’s file, that GWU 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.

Palestine Legal is pleased with the steps GWU has taken to ameliorate this incident and will continue to monitor GWU’s policies and defend the right of college students across the U.S. to express their views supporting Palestinian freedom.

Timeline of Events (Updated 12/11/2015)

October 26: GWU Campus police order Ramie to remove his Palestinian flag from his window, while other flags hang freely. Ramie removes the flag. A few minutes later, the officer returns and tells Ramie that his supervisor ordered him to make a report and questions Ramie in front of his roommates as other students look in from the hall.

October 29: Ramie speaks to the area coordinator at the Center for Student Engagement, explains how he was treated and asks her to identify which rule he broke.  The area coordinator tells Ramie she can’t find any applicable rule. Ramie spots five flags and banners hanging out of GWU residential buildings on this day.

November 3: The Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities issues a Warning Letter to Ramie, instructing Ramie to be “respectful” and “aware” of his behavior and that subsequent reports naming him may result in disciplinary action taken by the university. The letter does not specify which rule or regulation GWU claims Ramie broke. Ramie is given no opportunity to respond to the charges against him.

November 4: Ramie writes Peter Konwerski, Vice Provost and Dean of Student Affairs, along with other GWU administrators, requesting the university identify what rule he broke, and explaining how he felt like he was being disciplined and censored based on his national origin and the viewpoint of his speech.

November 5: Ramie receives a response from Dean Konwerski, who thanks Ramie for bringing this incident to his attention and tells him that “a member of our Student Rights & Responsibilities staff likely will be in touch to talk about this matter.” 

December 7: After Ramie’s calls and emails to GWU asking for clarification go unanswered, Palestine Legal writes GWU, demanding that the university rescind its warning letter, apologize to Ramie and clarify that its policies are applied equally, regardless of viewpoint or a student’s national origin.

December 7: GWU’s Office of Media Relations subsequently posts a statement that “GW has not banned any flags from its campus; however, the university’s Residential Community Conduct Guidelines prohibit the hanging of any object outside of a residence hall window (Section III. 7)” and that flags will only be removed when complaints are made to the GWU police department.

December 8: GWU posts the above media statement to its Facebook page. Students respond by posting pictures of flags hanging out their dorm room windows. Ramie meets with Nikki Hedren, Assistant Director, Office of Student Rights & Responsibilities in the evening.  Ms. Hedren states that GWU will respond in the coming days. 

December 9: Dean Konwerski writes Ramie at 5:59 p.m, stating that the Warning Letter has been rescinded and removed from his file.  In a separate email, also at 5:59 p.m., Dean Konwerski writes Palestine Legal, stating that GW had not banned Palestinian flags, and that students violate Section III.7 when they hang flags from windows, and that this policy is enforced when complaints are made. The email states “we believe we have met all of your requests.” GWU subsequently updates its media statement to say the matter has been resolved.

December 10: Palestine Legal writes Dean Konwerski at 10:57 a.m., stating that the matter has not been resolved, and that Ramie is still seeking clarification as to whether GWU will apply its policies equally, along with a written apology from GWU for its discriminatory removal of his Palestinian flag, police investigation and reprimand.  Palestine Legal posts an update.

December 10: The Special Assistant to the President emails Ramie at 5:32 p.m. stating that President Knapp would like to speak to him on the phone. A few minutes later, Ramie calls President Knapp back, and receives an apology. Shortly thereafter, President Knapp apologizes for GWU’s treatment of Ramie and agrees to revise GWU’s policies so that they are applied evenly. Palestine Legal has received reports that GWU’s flag policy is now being equally enforced across the campus. Ramie’s flag now hangs on the inside of his window.