December 8 - Palestine Legal wrote George Washington University (GW) yesterday, challenging the school’s de facto ban of Palestinian flags after campus police demanded a Palestinian-American pre-med student remove a flag from his bedroom window, questioned the student in his dorm room and issued a police report. GW subsequently sent the student, Ramie Abounaja, a ‘warning letter’ and failed to respond to multiple requests from Abounaja over the course of five weeks as to what specific rule he violated.
Palestine Legal’s letter contends that GW’s practice of allowing students to hang some flags out of windows while censoring others, creates a double standard and violates the free speech principles to which the university claims to adhere. Photographs are available upon request of other flags and banners affixed outside of residence hall buildings, the most recent being an Argentinian flag last week.
“I felt like I was being criminalized for something I’ve seen dozens of students, fraternities and other student groups do in my three years at GW,” said Ramie Abounaja, a junior biomedical engineering major. “GW escalated the situation too quickly when a simple email could have sufficed.”
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin by institutions that receive federal funding. A university may lose its federal funding if it acts with deliberate indifference to known acts of harassment or intimidation, or treats a student differently because his/her national origin, resulting in a denial of a student’s educational opportunities.
“It’s troubling that at a time when Islamophobic and anti-Arab sentiment is on the rise, GW is choosing to ignore its legal obligations to students,” said Radhika Sainath, an attorney with Palestine Legal. “GW must allow Ramie to express his identity and his viewpoint just as it does for any other student on campus without fear of law enforcement intervention.”
This incident comes at a time of a well-documented and widespread suppression of Palestinian rights advocacy across the country. Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights documented hundreds of such incidents in a report released in September, "The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the U.S."
Earlier this quarter at UCLA, the student government conditioned funding for a diversity town hall on the requirement that the event have "zero connection" with anyone from the "divest from Israel movement," a blatant violation of the First Amendment rights of public school students. At UC Irvine School of Law, university police prevented students with dissenting views from entering the lecture of an Israeli Supreme Court justice. In Berkeley, a city councilor fired a city commissioner because she insisted on raising divestment from Israeli human rights abuses as an issue relevant to human welfare in the city.
Palestine Legal responded to nearly 300 such incidents from January 2014 - June 2015, 85 percent of which targeted students and scholars. “These tactics set a dangerous precedent and have a detrimental effect on higher education by censoring and punishing open debate and free speech,” said Radhika Sainath.
Palestine Legal is an independent organization dedicated to protecting the civil and constitutional rights of people in the US who speak out for Palestinian freedom. Our mission is to bolster the Palestine solidarity movement by challenging efforts to threaten, harass and legally bully activists into silence and inaction.