George Washington University Apologizes to Student Forced to Remove Palestinian Flag

By Sameer Rao Dec 11, 2015

Earlier this week, Colorlines reported on the treatment a Palestinian-American student at The George Washington University (GWU) recieved for hanging a Palestinian flag oustide his dorm room window. Yesterday evening (December 10), GWU president Steven Knapp issued a statement indicating his apology. 

Undergraduate student Ramie Abounaja was approached by university police who insisted that he take down the Palestinian flag oustide his dormitory window. University officials subsequently issued a "warning letter," which threatened disciplinary action if Abounaja hung the flag again. While GWU’s Residential Community Conduct Guidelines prohibit students from hanging objects outside residence hall windows, Abounaja noted in his own letter to the administration that other groups and students regularly hung banners and flags in similar fashion. He also shared his feeling that he was being singled out for his ethnic heritage and political viewpoint. Legal advocacy group Palestine Legal and GWU’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine supported Abounaja’s claims, demanding that the university apologize to him and rescind the warning letter. 

In his statement, Knapp said that he "personally apologized to the student for this unfortunate incident and assured him that the university’s actions were in no way a response to his expression of his beliefs or opinions." He also described the flawed protocol that lead to Abounaja receiving a warning letter in the first place: 

Here is what occurred and what we are doing to make sure that a similar event does not occur in the future. When the flag was reported by a passerby to the GW Police Department, a police officer went to the student’s room and explained that hanging any object outside a window was prohibited. This policy was adopted some years ago for safety reasons. The officer had no idea what kind of flag this was. The student immediately moved the flag, and the officer filed a routine report.

That should have been the end of the matter. Instead, the officer’s report of the incident triggered the sending of a warning letter to the student. This was the result of what we now know was a flawed process that resulted in the student’s receiving a standard warning letter even though he had immediately complied with the officer’s request. The student was understandably alarmed and believed that the warning was based on the fact that the object he had hung from his window was a Palestinian flag. That was not the case, but, again, it was perfectly understandable that the student would interpret the letter in the way he did.

I have instructed the relevant offices to end the practice of sending warning letters to students solely because of a reported violation of a university policy. I have also instructed them to ensure consistent enforcement of all university policies.

Palestine Legal’s timeline of events shows that GWU rescinded the specific warning letter sent to Abounaja.