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Third Circuit to Hear Arabic Flash Card Case Appeal Friday

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 04, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision could give students pause about studying on long flights.

Nick George filed a civil rights claim against the feds in 2010 after he was stopped by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for carrying Arabic flash cards. Friday, the Philadelphia-based appellate court will hear arguments about whether George's lawsuit against the federal government should be allowed to proceed.

George was detained for almost five hours at Philadelphia International Airport after an airport screener found his Arabic-English flash cards and a book critical of U.S. foreign policy, reports CNN. George, then a student at Pomona College in California, claimed he was handcuffed and "abusively interrogated" by authorities at the airport.

George sued TSA, the Philadelphia Police Department and the FBI for wrongful detention. The lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, alleged First and Fourth Amendment violations.

Both the federal government and federal agents moved to dismiss George's case last year. The district court denied their motions. Friday, the feds will argue to the Third Circuit that the district court erred in permitting the case to proceed.

Why were George's flash cards a problem?

Of the approximately 200 flash cards, about 10 had words such as "bomb," "explosion," and "terrorist." George told TSA agents that he was learning the words because he had been trying to read Arabic news media and they were common words in news about the Middle East, CNN reports.

"Nick George didn't pose a threat to flight security and locking him up simply for studying a certain language is clearly unconstitutional," said Zachary Katznelson, the ACLU attorney who will argue the case before the Third Circuit panel this week.

But there's still another side to the story.

According to TSA spokesman Ann Davis, the flash cards were a red herring. Davis says that George caught the eye of agency behavioral specialists, who watch for "involuntary physical and physiological reactions that people exhibit in response to a fear of being discovered."

Between George's reportedly-suspicious behavior, and the arguably-violent content of some of the flash cards, do you think the government will persuade the Third Circuit to kick the case?

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