A student at George Washington University who received a visit from university police and a formal warning letter for hanging a Palestinian flag outside his dorm room window says his free speech rights have been violated.
“I felt like I was being singled out, because of my heritage and the viewpoint of my speech, for something I’ve seen dozens of students, fraternities and other student groups do in my three years at GW,” Ramie Abounaja, a junior biomedical engineering major, wrote in an account publicized by his attorneys at the civil rights organization Palestine Legal. In that letter Abounaja, a first-generation American of Palestinian heritage, wrote that a GW police officer came to his room on Oct. 26, stated that police had received multiple complaints about the flag and instructed him to take it down. Abounaja said he immediately did so.
“The officer came back a few minutes later and said that his boss required that he make a report. I felt victimized and criminalized in front of my roommates,” Abounaja wrote. He received a formal warning letter about the incident from the university’s Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities on Nov. 3.
In a statement issued by the media relations office, George Washington cited a provision of the university’s Residential Community Conduct Guidelines that, the university said, “prohibit[s] the hanging of any object outside of a residence hall window.” The rule cited states that “window screens are to be left in and closed at all times” and prohibits “intentional or unintentional throwing, dropping, allowing to fall, lowering of or in any way putting any object, solid or liquid, out of a window or from a balcony or rooftop deck of a residential facility.” It does not specifically refer to flags or banners.
In any case, the university did not cite any specific rule broken in its Nov. 3 warning letter to Abounaja, which includes only the vague statement that Abounaja’s behavior -- that is, hanging a flag out of his window -- constituted “a violation of the Code of Student Conduct and/or the Residential Community Conduct Guidelines.”
Abounaja and others are questioning whether the rules are being selectively enforced. Abounaja wrote that he was motivated to display the Palestinian flag “after I had seen dozens of different banners and flags hung outside other residential campus living spaces throughout my three years here at GW.” The Intercept on Wednesday published photos of an Argentine flag hanging out of a GW fraternity house window, a pirate flag affixed to a balcony in one of the dormitories and Christmas lights hanging from a window at another. A GW student, Aidan Adams, posted to the university’s Facebook page a photo of an American flag (above left) that he said had been hanging from a window at GW’s Mitchell Hall since the second day of the semester. (Adams said that the student took the American flag down shortly he posted about it on Tuesday. His intent, he explained, was not to report a fellow student's "policy violation" but instead to "shed light on the clear double standard.")
“It’s only a Palestinian flag that’s being singled out for censorship,” said Radhika Sainath, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal.
Candace Smith, a GW spokeswoman, said it’s a matter of what’s reported to university police or discovered by facilities staff in inspections. In this case, Smith said a resident called police to complain about the flag anonymously, “which the caller knew was in violation of the housing policy, and so police responded.”
“Basically, if somebody calls to complain that something’s hanging out the window or there are other types of housing violations, police will respond and ask that the items be removed,” she said.
“The housing rule is that you can’t hang banners and items out your window and this is for health and safety reasons,” Smith added. “We’re not trying to stymie free speech.”
Smith said student affairs officials have met with the student. In a written response to Palestine Legal, Peter Konwerski, GW's vice provost and dean of student affairs, reiterated the university's policy on residence hall windows. "Students who have potentially committed any low-level housing infractions receive a form letter when they are brought to the attention of our Student Conduct office," Konwerski said.
Abounaja has asked “that GW’s 'warning letter' be immediately retracted, that I receive a public written apology from GW for the police questioning and report, that GW clearly state in writing what their policy is with respect to flags/banners, and that this policy is applied evenly.”
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