NEW YORK — A discrimination lawsuit charges federal officials and JetBlue Airways with racial profiling for refusing to let an Iraqi man board an August 2006 flight at Kennedy International Airport because he wore a T-shirt inscribed with an Arabic phrase.
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The incident is part of a discriminatory pattern at U.S. airports since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with officials targeting people perceived to be of Arab descent — particularly those displaying their ethnic background or religious faith, two civil liberties groups said Thursday in filing the lawsuit.
The ACLU, joined by the New York Civil Liberties Union, filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of Raed Jarrar. The architect and political analyst, who has permanent U.S. residency, was barred from the JetBlue flight for wearing a shirt that read, in English and Arabic, "We Will Not Be Silent," according to the complaint.
"Racial profiling is illegal and ineffective and has no place in a democratic society," said Reginald Shuford, an ACLU senior staff attorney.
Last August, a Transportation Security Administration official identified only as Inspector Harris pulled Jarrar away from a boarding gate, took him to a JetBlue counter and told him his shirt made other passengers uncomfortable, the complaint said.
Jarrar was told to cover up the message if he wanted to board the flight to his home in Oakland, California. The TSA official equated wearing Jarrar's an Arabic shirt to an airport with "wearing a T-shirt at a bank stating, 'I am a robber,'" the complaint said.
The ACLU said it was clear Jarrar, who has been a legal resident since 2005 and is married to an American citizen, was "not a security threat." It said the TSA official and JetBlue should have simply assured any uncomfortable passengers there was no safety or security risk.
Jarrar, who now lives in Washington, D.C., said he was intimidated into wearing a shirt purchased by a JetBlue customer service agent over his T-shirt. His seat was also moved to the back of the plane and he was forced to board first, said the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages.
JetBlue Airways Corp. has a policy of not commenting on active litigation, spokesman Bryan Baldwin said Thursday night. Lara Uselding, regional spokeswoman for the TSA, said Friday that her agency does not comment on pending litigation.
The civil liberties unions said the U.S. Department of Transportation has received complaints of discrimination by air carriers — including JetBlue — every month from January 2002 to June 2007, the last month for which statistics were available.
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