Lawsuit: T-Shirt with Arabic Lettering Kept Man off Plane

Civil rights organizations question security decision that kept T-shirt wearer from boarding


NEW YORK -- An airline and a federal airport official illegally blocked a man from getting on a flight because he was wearing a T-shirt with an Arabic message on it, according to a discrimination lawsuit filed by two civil rights organizations.

The American and New York civil liberties unions said JetBlue Airways and a federal inspector violated Raeed Jarrar's civil rights when they barred him from boarding a plane at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport because he is of Arab descent and was wearing a shirt that said, in English and Arabic, "We Will Not Be Silent."

"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 American Civil Liberties Union. "Racial profiling is illegal and ineffective and has no place in a democratic society."

Last August, a Transportation Security Administration official pulled Jarrar away from a boarding gate, took him to a JetBlue counter and told him his shirt made other passengers uncomfortable and he had to cover it if he wanted to make his flight to Oakland, California, the complaint said.

The inspector said that wearing an shirt with Arabic writing at an airport was like "wearing a T-shirt at a bank stating, 'I am a robber,'" according to the lawsuit.

The ACLU said it was clear Jarrar, an Iraqi architect and political analyst who has lived in the United States since 2005 with his wife, a U.S. citizen, was "not a security threat." It said the TSA official and JetBlue should have assured any uncomfortable passengers there was no safety or security risk.

Jarrar said he agreed to wear a shirt provided by a JetBlue customer service agent because he was intimidated and worried he would miss his flight.

JetBlue Airways Corp. was aware of the lawsuit but has a policy of not commenting on active litigation, spokesman Bryan Baldwin said. A regional spokeswoman for the TSA did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.

The civil liberties unions said the U.S. Department of Transportation has received complaints of discrimination by air carriers every month from January 2002 to June 2007, the last month for which statistics were available. It said several of those complaints have been against JetBlue.

The Jarrar lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, charges that the TSA inspector and JetBlue violated Jarrar's civil rights under the U.S. Constitution and federal, state and city anti-discrimination laws. It seeks unspecified damages.