Ethnic Profiling Alleged at Georgetown

Grad student, also a journalist for the BBC Persian Service, says university cleared campus police who singled him out at graduation ceremony.
April 30, 2008

A graduate student filed suit against Georgetown University on Tuesday, alleging discrimination and unlawful search and seizure when campus police detained him while he was attending a friend's graduation ceremony last year. Two months later, the university issued a report responding to the student's initial complaint stating that the officers had followed proper policies.

The student, Kambiz Fattahi, is in his final year at Georgetown's graduate security studies program while also working for the BBC's Persian Service, according to the complaint. After the incident in May, Fattahi wrote a first-person piece that appeared on the BBC News Web site describing the sequence of events. "I was there to support a graduating classmate. Sitting in the front row among proud parents, family and friends of graduating students, I was captivated" by the words of Bernard Bailyn, the Harvard historian giving the commencement address, he wrote.

"Nations and people do have dominant characteristics, and it's a good time, a necessary time, to think briefly about our own essential characteristics. What others think about us, how we see ourselves, and how we actually are, matters," Fattahi quoted the professor as saying. But, he wrote, "the sense of awe did not last long. Two portly university security guards brought me back to reality.

"'Please come with us,' one of them ordered. He caught me off guard. When I asked why, he told me, 'You're making some people here nervous.'"

"It was disturbing to think that nothing more than my Middle Eastern appearance had aroused someone's suspicion. More shocking was the blunt inquiry of one of the guards about my national origin," he continued; he was born in Iran and holds dual Iranian and American citizenship. "After showing forms of identification, including my card from the BBC Persian Service, he commented: 'So, you're from Persia. Aren't Babylon and the Tigris River in Persia?'" (They are in Iraq; Persia refers to present-day Iran.)

He wrote at the time: "Officials at Georgetown say they have strict policies prohibiting racial and ethnic profiling, and have begun an investigation into the matter." That investigation resulted in a report backing the officers -- who deny that they mentioned Babylon or the Tigris River -- and stating that the questions on national origin were intended to "see if he needed a translator," the lawsuit said. Fattahi speaks fluent English.

"Georgetown officials took these allegations very seriously and immediately began a review of the matter. The incident was fully investigated by the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Affirmative Action (IDEAA), with input and cooperation from the complaining individual," says a statement on Georgetown's Web site dating back to August 2007. "... The investigation determined that Georgetown University's Department of Public Safety officers responded in an appropriately calibrated way to reports from an audience member that an individual was behaving in a suspicious manner during the commencement ceremony on May 18. In response to that information, and given the heightened security status on campus at that time, officers responded by taking appropriate and necessary steps to engage and to request identification from the individual."

For half an hour, the officers detained and questioned Fattahi, who had been sitting in the audience and periodically checking his phone to look for messages from friends he was planning to meet there. The suit says he was carrying a backpack, his cell phone and a box of cookies for the friend who was graduating.

Georgetown's statement continues: "A combination of factors including the then recent tragedy at Virginia Tech, receipt of an anonymous threat of violence on Georgetown's campus 10 days earlier, and the presence of a foreign dignitary at the graduation ceremony contributed to increased event secuirty. After the individual's student status was confirmed, he was permitted to return to his seat for the remainder of the ceremony. There was no finding of improper behavior or violation of University policy by the officers."

The complaint, filed in D.C. federal court, seeks no less than $75,000 in damages. A spokeswoman told the Associated Press that while Georgetown could not comment on pending litigation, "we would expect to defend ourselves vigorously."


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