At GWU Holy Symbol Triggers Ban, But Hangman's Noose OK at Duke, Says Prof. John Banzhaf; Indian Svastika is Universal Symbol of Love, While Noose Means Death Everywhere

A GWU student is about to be expelled for briefly displaying an Indian symbol of love revered by at least four major religions, whereas a student at Duke University who hung a hangman's noose from a tree on campus will be allowed to remain to continue his studies.

Washington, DC, May 06, 2015 --( A student at George Washington University [GWU] was barred from campus, and is still facing permanent expulsion, for very briefly displaying an Indian symbol which is revered in at least four major religions, even though the student who mistook it for a Nazi swastika immediately withdrew his complaint when his fraternity mate who posted it explained the mistake, according to many media accounts.

Yet a student at Duke University who hung a hangman's noose from a tree on campus - allegedly as a "joke," a pun on "hanging around" - where it remained for some time will be allowed to remain on campus, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Although the Duke student claimed that as a foreigner he was unfamiliar with the noose and what it symbolized, this is hard to believe since a hangman's noose in all countries and in all cultures symbolizes only death, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf.

In contrast, the symbol displayed at GWU is one which in India and many other countries, and for at least four major religions, symbolizes peace and love, and appears almost everywhere in India where the student acquired it, including even on the outside doors of Jewish temples, as the Hindu American Foundation explains on its web site.

The symbol briefly displayed at GWU, sometimes called a svastika, looks something like the hated Nazi swastika, but it is different in color, orientation, and proportions, whereas a hangman's noose looks the same all around the world, notes Banzhaf.

Since GWU has taken the position that the motive for displaying a svastika is irrelevant, and the student's explanation that he brought it back from India on a recent trip in order to stimulate discussion with other members of his own largely Jewish fraternity (on whose bulletin board it was lawfully posted very briefly) is unchallenged and backed up by many Jewish witnesses including his rabbi, the university's action seems tantamount to banning at GWU a very sacred religious symbol. Thus, while Christian, Jewish, and other students are free to openly display their religious symbols, Hindus, Buddhists, and other students can do the same only at the risk of being banned and ultimately expelled, notes Banzhaf.

This certainly seems to discriminate against certain religions, says Banzhaf. Moreover, he argues, banning any innocent system because it could be mistaken for another bad symbol is illogical.

It’s hard to see how a rational university would ban a student from campus for displaying the six-pointed Jewish star, just because it could be mistaken for the 5-pointed pentagram which symbolizes human sacrifice. Similarly, it would make little sense to punish a student for using a word like “niggardly,” simply because some students might mistake if for a racial slur.

GWU’s actions have been condemned by several dozen Indian media outlets, by many major religious organizations including the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington (IFC), and by major U.S. publications.

For example, Forbes said GWU’s actions "have a chilling effect on free expression," and suggested that even alumni stop giving to it. Forbes also reported that "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."

Reason magazine was also very critical: "The university has so far ignored FIRE'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?"

Likewise, an article in Inside Higher Ed 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."
George Washington University Law School
Public Interest Law Professor John Banzhaf
202 994-7229 // 703 527-8418