George Washington University Nixes Ban on Religious Symbol; “Proactive Strategy” Backfires, Says Prof. John Banzhaf

George Washington University (GWU) Reverses its Previously Announced Plan to Effectively Ban a Hindu and Buddhist Symbol from Campus, Because It Resembled a Nazi Swastika, by Expelling Student Who Displayed It.

Washington, DC, May 29, 2015 --( Faced with widespread condemnation from religious organizations - including the Hindu American Foundation and the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington - and very critical reports in many media outlets both here and in India, George Washington University [GWU] has backed down on its so-called “Proactive Messaging Strategy” to effectively ban any display of an ancient religious symbol by banning from campus a student who innocently and briefly displayed it - as initially reported by The Times of India.

By declining to permanently expel a student for innocently displaying a svastika he brought back from India, the University - as part of what the Student Newspaper The Hatchet termed its “Proactive Messaging Strategy”- had seemingly determined that the mere display of the svastika symbol - which somewhat resembles the hated Nazi swastika but is different in color, orientation, and proportions - does not warrant punishment.

Thus Hindu, Buddhist, Jainist, Zoroastrian, and other students apparently now remain free to peacefully display their ancient religious symbol, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf, who has led the fight against the symbol's de facto ban, and to allow the student to remain at GWU.

Punishing a student for displaying an Indian svastika because it could be mistaken for a Nazi swastika makes as much sense as expelling one for displaying a six-pointed Jewish star because it could be mistaken for a five-pointed pentagram, or for using in a flyer the word "niggardly" because it could be mistaken for a racial slur, says Banzhaf, echoing the comments from many other news sites, including The Daily Caller.

Representatives from a number of major religious organizations also wrote angry letters to GWU's President, demanding that the student not be expelled.

The incident was very widely reported, both here and in dozens of media outlets in India, usually critically and often sarcastically, since it represented a major affront to their religious beliefs, and a major assault on religion, says Banzhaf. Indeed, as Forbes magazine noted, "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 (FIRE)."

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?"

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 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.'"

This whole incident, based upon mistakes, should never have occurred, and GWU - albeit under considerable pressure - has now hopefully put it past us, says Prof Banzhaf.
George Washington University Law School
Public Interest Law Professor John Banzhaf
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