Outrage Over GWU's Religious Ban Grows, Here and in India, Says GWU Professor John Banzhaf

Media Calling It Discrimination, Saying University May be Sued, Asking People Not to Contribute, Reporting that Students Are Frightened, etc.

Washington, DC, May 02, 2015 --(PR.com)-- Although it apparently began as an innocent mistake, George Washington University's [GWU] decision to ban from its campus all displays of a sacred religious symbol, and to seek the permanent expulsion of a student who very briefly displayed it, has now become an international incident and embarrassment, with dozens of foreign media outlets reporting on it - often with a mixture of outrage and bemusement - and U.S. media becoming even harsher in their condemnation.

Forbes magazine is one of the latest. It said such actions "have a chilling effect on free expression," universities "are taking the lead in suppressing free expression in order to be politically correct," "the university by its dubious disciplinary action appears to be depriving a student of considerable future income and is opening itself up to civil damages of a considerable amount," "banning the Hindu svastika (the Hindu spelling) is one step away from banning the Star of David (or the Christian cross)," and "it is interesting that this banning received widespread attention in India, where some viewed it as an anti-Indian and anti-Hindu act.’"

Forbes even went so far as to suggest people should stop donating to GWU: "Individuals wanting to promote vibrant dialogue on college campuses often donate to their favorite university, maybe funding, say, a lecture series. Perhaps instead GW alumni should consider giving their funds to independent groups promoting free expression and adherent to First Amendment principles, such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (F.I.R.E.)."

Reason magazine was also very critical: "The university has so far ignored F.I.R.E.'s assertions that punishing this student is a breach of the free speech guarantees it makes in its code of conduct. '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.' Is school not the right place to learn about the swastika's origins?"

Speaking of FIRE, its strong condemnation is summed up in the title of its article "The George Washington University Tramples Free Speech, Ignores Context in Suspending Student for Indian Swastika Posting."

In part it said "F.I.R.E. reminded GWU that not only was the swastika in question indisputably not a Nazi swastika, but even Nazi swastikas receive First Amendment protection. F.I.R.E.’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."

Inside Higher Ed, in an article entitled "Swastikas, Hate, and Confusion," notes "A student disciplinary process at George Washington University might not seem like hot news in India, but this weekend it was receiving attention in The Times of India, The Hindustan Times and elsewhere. The case is being interpreted by some law professors as a move by the university to effectively ban the swastika from the university's campus."

The article also notes the very clear differences between the sacred religious symbol which has effectively been banned from the campus, and the Nazi swastika it somewhat resembles: "As shown in the illustration above, the Nazi swastika was typically black on white, surrounded by red, on a 45-degree angle. Those of Eastern religions typically feature horizontal and vertical lines, sometimes with dots added and different color arrangements."

The comprehensive article also noted "The Hindu American Foundation is also calling on GW to withdraw the president's statement and to stop seeking to punish the student who posted a swastika from India. 'Contrary to the hateful and violent meaning the swastika has come to take on for many since its misappropriation by the Nazis, the original swastika is an ancient and holy symbol. . . . As such, the symbol cannot be dismissed as one of 'intrinsically anti-Semitic meaning.'"

The article further quoted the Foundation as follows: "The consequences of the university’s expulsion could very well be a de facto ban on the use of the swastika in any context on campus. As such, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain or Native American students who sought to use the symbol in a religious manner would be unable to do so without facing the risk of punishment. Such consequences violate both federal and D.C. law and call into question your commitment to religious diversity on campus."
George Washington University Law School
Public Interest Law Professor John Banzhaf
202 994-7229 // 703 527-8418