I Was Arrested for Learning a Foreign Language. Today, I Have Some Closure.

By Nick George

Nick George

Nick George

Five years ago, the Philadelphia police thought that carrying Arabic-language flashcards was enough to warrant the arrest of an innocent traveler. A settlement reached today in a lawsuit I brought against the police department makes it clear that it is not.

Travelling by plane can be a long and grueling process under the best of circumstances. This makes it a good time for monotonous tasks, like trying to iron out some vocab for a language you’re learning at college.

In August 2009, I was planning to fly through the Philadelphia airport to start my senior year at Pomona College in California. I was carrying a set of English-Arabic flashcards that I had put together for one of my classes, as well as a book critical of U.S. foreign policy (written by a former secretary of commerce under President Reagan– not exactly a radical treatise). It should go without saying that this is perfectly innocuous, First Amendment-protected activity.

Turns out, it doesn’t.

At the metal detector at airport security, Transportation Security Administration agents asked me to empty my pockets. I took the set of flashcards from my pocket and handed them to the officers. After I cleared the metal detector, they asked me to step aside for additional screening. One of them started rifling through the cards, and another took the book out of my carry-on. The minutes ticked by, and I got more confused about why I was being detained and more concerned that I would miss my flight. One of them called a supervisor.

After a half-hour delay at the security line, the supervisor showed up, and things turned from annoying to surreal. After looking at the book and flashcards, the supervisor asked me: “Do you know who did 9/11?” Taken totally aback, I answered: “Osama Bin Laden.” Then she asked me if I knew what language Osama Bin Laden spoke. “Arabic,” I replied. “So do you see why these cards are suspicious?” she finished.

Imagine going from being in line at the airport to having a TSA supervisor imply you had some connection with the worst act of terrorism ever committed against your country – all over the course of a few minutes.

She was in mid-sentence talking to me when a Philadelphia police officer appeared behind me and ordered me to put my hands behind my back. He cuffed my hands, grabbed my arms, and, in full view of the rest of the passengers, walked me through the entire Philadelphia airport and into the police substation.

No one informed me of my rights, and no one would tell me why I was being not just searched but arrested by police, when I was in violation of no law. I had never been arrested, and no one knew I was there.

The police officer left me in a cell at the police station for several more hours. He did not uncuff my hands from behind my back. He did not tell me what I was being held for. He did not tell me how long I would be there. After about two hours I asked to go to the bathroom, and on the way back I again asked why I was being held. He answered me with the same attitude the TSA agent had shown me: “I dunno, what’d you do?”

It’s that attitude that is so problematic. Even after searching my luggage without probable cause of a crime and finding nothing out of the ordinary, TSA agents and the police felt they had the authority to detain and then arrest me, purely on ignorant assumptions about a language spoken by 295 million people worldwide.

That’s why this lawsuit is important: to make it clear that arbitrary arrests are illegal, even at the airport. In addition to some modest damages, the settlement we signed requires the Philadelphia Police Department to amend its policies to make this clear. As law enforcement officers, they will be periodically instructed that they have an independent duty to establish probable cause before arrest, and cannot simply clap in cuffs anyone the TSA calls suspicious.

Again, this seems like it should go without saying. Maybe now it will. I’m very grateful to the ACLU for helping me get here. And I hope the Philadelphia police have gotten the message.

This article is cross-posted at the ACLU’s Blog of Rights

“Save Roe”

By Julie Zaebst, Project Manager, Duvall Reproductive Freedom Project

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It has been 42 years since the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, but somehow, on this cold, slushy Thursday, I found myself standing in the middle of Broad Street holding a sign that said “Save Roe.”

Some days, I wonder how we got to the point where it doesn’t seem far-fetched to say that Roe needs saving. Today, though, I was grateful to stand with a small crowd in Center City Philadelphia and remind passersby what safe, legal abortion means for women and their families. Of course, it’s about the ability to decide when and under what circumstances to take on the incredible responsibility of having a child. But it’s also about access to basic health care for women. It’s about financial stability. It’s about opportunities and dreams. It’s about respect and equality.

A lot of people on Broad Street today understood that. We got honks of support and thumbs-up. People rolled down their car windows to cheer and say thank you. The only counter-protestor who dared to join us kept her headphones in the whole time.

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(This rally was organized by Planned Parenthood Southeastern pennsylvania)

I wish I could have brought members of Congress out today to see that the American people get it – and that we’re paying attention. Late last night, the House of Representatives dropped plans to vote on a bill that would have banned abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy, amid concerns about the “optics” of the issue. This sounds like a victory, but instead, the House approved a bill that targets abortion access for low-income women: HR 7 would ban federal insurance coverage of abortion, including in insurance policies sold on the state exchanges.

I’m afraid I’ll be back on Broad Street at this time next year, still holding my “Save Roe” sign. I hope you’ll be there to join me.

ACLU ACTION >> Protect Women’s Reproductive Decisions

Julie Julie Zaebst joined the ACLU-PA in July 2014, bringing more than 10 years of experience as a program manager and advocate.

Thank You, Santa’s Helpers!

By Molly Tack-Hooper, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Last month, I blogged about the 41 children preparing to spend Christmas incarcerated at a family immigration detention center in Berks County. In past years, these children would have been released to stay with relatives in the U.S. while their immigration cases proceeded. But because of a new misguided and illegal federal policy of locking up asylum-seeking families as a means of deterring other Central Americans from seeking refuge in the U.S., dozens of children spent the holidays behind bars.

On December 16, the ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging the Obama administration’s no-release policy. In the days after that, I worked with the Berks facility to set up an online holiday toy drive for the children detained there—just in case Santa Claus couldn’t make it past security.

You—our members and supporters and colleagues and friends—responded quickly and generously to the toy drive. Less than 24 hours after I set up the gift registry, you had purchased enough toys for every child at Berks to receive a present on Christmas. Within a few days, you had bought every last toy on the registry, ensuring that every kid at Berks would have several presents on Christmas morning. And you didn’t stop there—you asked what else they needed. So after checking with the facility, we added some more games and winter clothes to the registry. And you bought many of those, too.

The staff at the Berks Center tell me that they took great pleasure in wrapping all of the gifts you donated and delivering them to the children on Christmas morning, and that the kids loved their presents. The staff asked me to pass along their thanks. The Center’s privacy policies prohibit them from sharing any photos with the children’s faces, but today they passed along a photo from Christmas morning of one of the facility’s littlest detainees.

Thank you for brightening his Christmas by giving him new toys of his own. Your support—not only of the toy drive, but of all of our work—is humbling and inspiring. We’ll keep fighting until the children at Berks have the gift of freedom, too.

Molly-Tack-HooperMolly Tack-Hooper started at the ACLU of Pennsylvania as a volunteer legal fellow in 2010-2011 and returned in 2013 as a staff attorney focusing on civil liberties issues arising in Central Pennsylvania and on immigrants’ rights.