Victory: The George Washington University Retreats from Battle with Context

May 29, 2015

A Jewish student charged with five disciplinary violations and placed on interim suspension by The George Washington University (GWU) for attempting to start a dialogue about the historical pre-Nazi use of the swastika has been allowed to return to campus and his studies. The reversal comes in the wake of criticism from FIRE, the Hindu American Foundation, and the student’s attorneys.

As FIRE detailed in our April 28 press release, the student had recently traveled to India, where he learned about the ancient history of the swastika as a symbol of good fortune and purchased a small bronze replica of the symbol. Upon returning to the GWU residence hall where he resided with his predominantly Jewish fraternity brothers, the student placed the symbol on a hallway bulletin board in order to spark a conversation about the swastika. After the student stepped away from the bulletin board, a member of his fraternity saw the swastika and called the police. The student stepped forward to claim responsibility—and GWU immediately suspended him from the university and evicted him from the residence hall pending the resolution of the five disciplinary charges.

GWU refused to discuss the student’s case with FIRE in response to our letter calling on the university to drop the charges and respect the promises of free speech rights that it makes to students in official policy. Fortunately, the disciplinary case against the student has since been resolved and the interim suspension has been lifted, allowing the student to return to class and continue his education at GWU.

In the past few months, several colleges and universities have rushed to swiftly impose harsh sanctions against students perceived as expressing prejudiced or bigoted views, without regard for students’ rights to free speech and due process. GWU took this troubling trend a step further by completely ignoring the context of the student’s speech, which was intended to fight the appropriation of the ancient symbol by the Nazis.

We are pleased that GWU appears to have thought better of pursuing its original course of action after sober reflection, but FIRE will continue to watch closely to make sure that temptation doesn’t get the best of GWU again.

Schools:  George Washington University