Nicholas George was about to catch a flight from Philadelphia to the West Coast to start his senior year at Pomona College in California when he was questioned then detained in a jail cell for five hours -- two of them in handcuffs -- after Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents became suspicious of the Arabic language flashcards the student was carrying, including those with the words “bomb” and “terrorist.”
After the 2009 incident at Philadelphia International Airport George, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), went to court to sue three TSA agents and two FBI agents for what he said was a violation of his right to free speech and protection against an improper search and arrest.
Besides the educational cards he was carrying, he was also traveling with a book critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday decided to reject George’s bid to sue the federal agents, the Associated Press reported.
Chief Judge Theodore McKee in the ruling wrote that George had the right to possess the flashcards and the book. He called the detention "at the outer boundary" of constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
However, the three-judge panel supported the federal agents in detaining the student who had raised suspicions.
"It is simply not reasonable to require TSA officials to turn a blind eye to someone trying to board an airplane carrying Arabic-English flashcards with words such as ‘bomb,’ ‘'to kill, etc.," the judge wrote. "Rather, basic common sense would allow those officials to take reasonable and minimally intrusive steps to inquire into the potential passenger's motivations."
"Suspicion remained, and that suspicion was objectively reasonable given the realities and perils of air passenger safety," the decision reads. "In a world where air passenger safety must contend with such nuanced threats as attempts to convert underwear into bombs and shoes into incendiary devices, we think that the brief detention that followed the initial administrative search of George was reasonable."
On its website, the ACLU explained that George, a Physics major, “had recently completed a study abroad program in Jordan, was using the cards to aid his Arabic language studies.”
ACLU attorney Benjamin Wizner told the AP that the decision was perplexing.
"Were they saying that he needed those flash cards to try to hijack the plane in Arabic? Because he presumably knew how to do that in English," Wizner said.
In a 2010 interview to the Los Angeles Times, George conceded that passport stamps from various Middle Eastern and African countries he had visited may also have raised the suspicions of the airport security agents, including Jordan, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.
He said that though the words on the flashcards “bomb” and “terrorism” may have raised suspicions, students have to learn those words if they want to understand Arabic-language newspapers.
"I feel the TSA acts like it has a blank check as long as what it does is in the name of fighting terrorism," George said. "Of course, the TSA's job is to keep us safe -- but they have to follow the Constitution and respect rights."
George’s lawsuit contended that “an FBI agent cursed him and asked George if he was Muslim or a member of any ‘pro-Islamic’ or communist student groups, to which he replied no,” the LA Times reported in 2010.