Suing for the First Amendment

ACLU Sues TSA Official, JetBlue for Discriminating Against Passenger Wearing Arabic T-Shirt (8/9/2007)

NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union and New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a federal civil rights lawsuit charging that a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) official and JetBlue Airways illegally discriminated against an American resident based solely on the Arabic message on his t-shirt and his ethnicity.

JetBlue and the TSA official, identified as “Inspector Harris,” would not let Raed Jarrar board his flight at John F. Kennedy Airport until he agreed to cover his t-shirt, which read “We Will Not Be Silent” in English and Arabic script. According to the complaint, Harris told Jarrar that it is impermissible to wear an Arabic shirt to an airport and equated it to a “person wearing a t-shirt at a bank stating, ‘I am a robber.'”

“It is a dangerous and slippery slope when we allow our government to take away a person’s rights because of his speech or ethnic background,” said Reginald Shuford, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. “Racial profiling is illegal and ineffective and has no place in a democratic society.”

Jarrar, an architect and political analyst of Arabic descent, has lived in the United States since 2005 with his wife, who is an American citizen. On August 12, 2006, Jarrar attempted to fly on JetBlue from New York to Oakland, California, where he lived at the time. Although Jarrar successfully cleared two security checkpoints, he was approached by Inspector Harris while waiting at the boarding gate. Harris brought Jarrar to the JetBlue counter and told him that he would have to remove his shirt because other passengers were not comfortable with the Arabic script.

“It was clear that Mr. Jarrar was not a security threat and was singled out solely because of his ethnicity and the constitutionally protected speech on his t-shirt,” said Aden Fine, an ACLU senior staff attorney who represents Jarrar. “Rather than censor Raed, the TSA official and Jet Blue should have assured any uncomfortable passengers that there was absolutely no public safety or security risk. We hope this case sends the message to TSA officials and to airlines that they cannot discriminate against passengers because of their race or the content of their speech.”

Jarrar attempted to assert his constitutional right to wear the t-shirt, but became intimidated after he was surrounded by Harris and several JetBlue officials. He worried he would miss his flight or be arrested and detained indefinitely. The lead JetBlue customer service crewmember stated that she would buy Jarrar a new shirt to wear on top of his own t-shirt as a “compromise.” Left with no other choice, Jarrar reluctantly agreed, and was allowed on the plane only after the JetBlue agents ripped up his boarding pass and changed his seat from the front of the plane to the very back of the plane. He was then forced to board the plane first, even before disabled passengers and those traveling with children.

“I believe it is my right and responsibility as a new U.S. resident and taxpayer to fight for my freedoms and for the right of all people in this country to be free of discrimination,” said Jarrar, who is currently employed with the American Friends Service Committee, an organization committed to peace and social justice. “It was not my goal to offend anyone with my t-shirt, but it is a shame that racial profiling and censorship are still rampant in America’s airports.”

The ACLU said Jarrar’s case is part of a disturbing pattern of discriminatory acts at airports against individuals perceived to be Arab, especially those engaged in expressive activities that visibly display their ethnic background or religious faith. According to the Department of Transportation, it has received complaints of discrimination by air carriers every month from January 2002 to June 2007, the last month for which statistics are available. Several of those discrimination complaints have been lodged against JetBlue.

The ACLU filed the complaint today in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. The complaint charges that TSA Inspector Harris and JetBlue violated Jarrar’s civil rights under the First and Fifth Amendments and federal, state and city anti-discrimination laws.

In addition to Fine and Shuford, attorneys in this case are: Dennis Parker, Director of the ACLU Racial Justice Program, and Palyn Hung of the NYCLU.

More information, including a copy of the complaint, video and photographs, is online at:


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