WASHINGTON, April 28, 2015—The George Washington University (GWU) has ignored both context and its own promises of free expression by suspending a Jewish student for placing a souvenir Hindu swastika obtained on a trip to India on his residence hall’s bulletin board. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), along with the student’s attorneys and the Hindu American Foundation, are calling on GWU to revoke the suspension.
On March 16, the student placed a small, bronze, Indian swastika on a bulletin board at GWU’s International House residence hall. He intended to educate his friends and co-residents about the symbol’s origins, which he learned about during a spring break trip to India. The student had learned on his trip that although the swastika was appropriated by Nazi Germany, it has an ancient history in many cultures as a symbol of good luck and success.
After a fellow student reported the swastika to the GWU police department, the university quickly suspended the student and evicted him from university housing, pending the outcome of five disciplinary charges. The university also referred the incident to the District of Columbia police for investigation as a potential “hate crime.”
“GWU may not ignore thousands of years of history and effectively forbid all uses of the swastika because it was used by Nazi Germany,” said FIRE Program Officer and attorney Ari Cohn. “It’s ironic that the charges against the student illustrate the very point he was trying to make in the first place—that context is important and there’s much to be learned about the history of the swastika.”
Prior to the student’s ordeal, International House had recently been the target of an unidentified vandal who drew three swastikas on the walls. In light of this vandalism, the student—himself Jewish—thought that educating his predominantly Jewish brothers in the Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT) fraternity living at International House about the swastika’s ancient roots would be empowering.
After posting the swastika, the student stayed close to the bulletin board in order to discuss it with observers. He briefly stepped away, however, and a member of the student’s fraternity saw the swastika and called GWU’s campus police, who filed a report and took the item as evidence. When the student found out the police had been called, he immediately claimed responsibility and attempted to clarify his intent.
On March 18, two days after the incident, GWU notified the student that he was facing five disciplinary charges and that he was suspended pending their adjudication. The terms of the interim suspension included temporary eviction from university housing, suspension from class and university activities, and a prohibition from stepping foot on campus property.
FIRE wrote to GWU President Steven Knapp on March 27, calling on the university to immediately drop the charges against the student. FIRE reminded GWU that not only was the swastika in question indisputably not a Nazi swastika, but even Nazi swastikas receive First Amendment protection. FIRE’s letter further explained that punishing the student because of the misinterpretation of his expressive activity is anathema to the purpose and values of an institution of higher education.
On April 1, GWU Vice President for External Relations Lorraine Voles responded to FIRE’s letter, refusing to discuss the case. The student’s hearing on these charges was held on April 20. He is represented by attorneys Henry Asbill, Yaakov Roth, and Julia Sheketoff of the law firm Jones Day. The outcome of the hearing is still pending.
“GWU must honor its explicit promises of freedom of expression,” said Cohn. “These charges contradict those promises and do great harm to the robust, open debate from which a university derives intellectual vitality. The university must end its senseless disregard of context, drop all charges, and make good on its word.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and freedom of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Nico Perrino, Associate Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org