Watch Your Mouth

Watch Your Mouth

Free speech at GMU examined after student arrest.

George Mason University has launched an investigation into the arrest of a student after he and others claimed his free speech rights were violated.

Tariq Khan, a 27-year-old sociology major in his third year at George Mason, said the campus police who arrested him used undue force, while other student and faculty groups expressed concern about free speech on campus.

On Thursday, Sept. 29, Khan went into the George W. Johnson Student Center and saw a table set up by recruiters from the U.S. Marine Corps. Khan always carries a stack of antiwar pamphlets with him, he said, and because he is opposed to military recruiting techniques, decided to stage a protest near the recruiting table.

Khan said he stood next to the table with a sheet of paper taped to his chest with the words "Recruiters Lie, Don’t Be Deceived," written on it.

"I know from experience that recruiters lie," said Khan, who served in the U.S. Air Force for four years after graduating from high school in Sterling. "It’s almost a joke for people in the military that recruiters lie."

Khan had his pamphlets with him, but did not hand them out unless someone asked for one, did not speak to the recruiters, and only talked with passersby if they spoke to him first, he said. According to Khan, a student approached him and called him a liar, verbally harassed him, and ripped the sign off his chest. While Khan was speaking with the student, a Johnson Center employee came up to him and told him he had to leave. When Khan refused, the employee called campus police, who arrested him for trespassing and took him to the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. Khan was charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. Released on his own recognizance, he faces a Nov. 14 court date.

Rebecca Glenberg of the American Civil Liberties Union will represent Khan in the court case.

"We think that he had a constitutional right to be present in the J.C. protesting the recruiters," she said. "Because he had a First Amendment right to be there, there was no lawful authority to ask him to leave, and consequently, even if he was asked to leave, he was not trespassing." No lawsuit is in the works, said Glenberg, but she is not ruling it out.

University spokesperson Daniel Walsch said that after the incident, the administration received statements from witnesses and decided to look more closely at the situation.

"We are reviewing the facts as best as they can be determined, talking with the principals involved and then will make a determination," said Walsch. The university will turn over information to the Virginia Attorney General’s Office, he said.

Several disputes remain over the incident itself, said Walsch, such as whether Khan was actually giving out pamphlets (not allowed without a permit) or whether Khan resisted arrest or not. Khan said that he made sure to draw attention to himself verbally, but was peaceful, and that the police assaulted him. But according to bystander and George Mason senior Edward Gattis, it took three other people besides the police officer to hold Khan down.

According to David Curtis, a graduate student who saw the incident and subsequently formed the group "Concerned Students for Civil Liberties on Campus," the Johnson Center employee asked Khan to leave because of a university policy requiring students to get permission from the university when setting up tables or kiosks, or when speaking out in a school building.

"In terms of going somewhere and speaking out, we do have some areas that are more conducive to that," said Walsch. "[Khan] went up to recruiters with a sign and that’s what he was doing. He was not giving a speech. There is nothing wrong with him having a conversation with anybody."

Jacob Fawcett, a graduate student and codirector of GMU Students for Peace, said the problem was that the policy, which "applies to the sale and distribution of products, goods, food, beverages, services, and newspapers by GMU and non-GMU organization and individuals," is vaguely worded.

"The actual policy says nothing about pamphleting," said Fawcett. "The closest it gets is ‘newspapers.’ If that policy can be construed to a simple dissemination of information, then they have a real problem on their hands."

"This was neither a good nor a service, it was an opinion, and therefore, this is really where you want to have as broad a protection of free expression as possible, especially on a university campus," said Roger Lancaster, director of cultural studies at George Mason, who has taught at the school since 1988.

FOR CURTIS, the central issue is about free speech and the right to protest on a college campus. The students put together a rally in Khan’s defense on Monday, Oct. 3, and faculty organized a teach-in that Wednesday, where several George Mason professors spoke about free speech and answered audience questions.

"The rally was an immediate response to the incident, as was the Concerned Students for Civil Liberties on Campus," said Curtis. "We see it as a violation of Tariq’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech."

Soon after the incident, university provost Peter Stearns issued a public statement that affirmed a commitment to the First Amendment, saying the university "must work to avoid attacks on expressions of free speech, including destruction of signs and other written statements."

"It’s a question of whether the police should have been called," said Carole Gould, George Mason professor and director of the Center for Global Ethics. "But I think there is sympathy with our concerns in this administration."

Gould and over 100 other professors signed a petition expressing "deep concern" over the incident, but approved the university's handling of the situation. The petition called for a full public report from the Offices of University Life, an independent review of the incident and operations policies, and appropriate disciplinary measures for students, staff or police if found to have violated free-speech rights.

For several George Mason students, the ability to speak freely is important, but so is following the rules.

"If you want to make a fool of yourself and say something controversial, if that’s your own opinion and you’re going to stand up and fight about it, go ahead," said Gattis.

"[Khan] has a right to say whatever he wants, but it is the school’s property, so they can give him channels through which to go," said senior Megan Jones.

Caiti Rodel, a fifth-year theater major at George Mason, said she is glad the school is investigating.

"If [Khan’s] First Amendment right was squashed, then [the university] will try to make it better," said Rodel.

Gould said she is mindful of the school's namesake, George Mason, who helped write the Virginia Bill of Rights and was himself a proponent of free expression.

"That’s how we try to do things at Mason, we allow the expression of things many of us don’t agree with," said Lancaster. "It’s really essential to the mission of the university to allow that kind of conversation to happen."