VIRGINIA — The right to speak was not free for one student at George Mason University – it cost him handcuffs, a trip to the local jail and trespassing and disorderly conduct charges.
Tariq Khan, a junior sociology major, said he was protesting Marine recruiters at a student center on campus at lunch last month when another man who said he was a Marine started yelling at him.
The man ripped off the sign Khan was wearing, which read “Recruiters Lie, Don’t Be Deceived,” Khan said.
“I was in the military for four years,” he said. “I know what recruiters say and I know what reality is, and they don’t always match up.”
Shortly after the confrontation, a police officer approached him and told him he was not allowed to be in the area and that he had to have a permit, Khan said.
After he failed to present the officer with identification because he didn’t have it on him, the officer arrested him and took him to Fairfax County police department, where he was booked on trespassing and disorderly conduct charges, Khan said.
“They charged me with trespassing on my own campus.”
This was not the first time he had protested military recruiters, Khan said, but it was the first time police approached him. A Pakistani American, Khan said the recruiters as well as the campus police officers made insulting remarks to him about Middle Easterners.
The incident has become big news on campus, prompting two public forums and investigations into the campus officers’ conduct, said Daniel Walsch, a spokesman from the university.
The Washington Post reported Oct. 6 that more than 100 students and faculty gathered on campus to protest Khan’s arrest.
Walsch said he expects two internal reviews — one by the university police and one by an ad hoc senior management team — to be completed next week.
“We believe in free speech and want to do all we can to maintain an environment in which that can be practiced,” he said.
George Mason University’s Fairfax County campus has designated speech zones where students can exercise their free speech rights without permission, Walsch said. But the area where Khan was protesting requires students to reserve tables to hand out literature.
One of the points of contention between Khan and the campus police is whether or not Khan was handing out pamphlets, Walsch said. Khan says he had pamphlets, but was only handing them out to people that asked for one.
But some free speech advocates say it should not matter whether he was handing out pamphlets or not.
“Clearly the university is within its rights to prevent people from handing out leaflets in a classroom in the middle of class, but this was an open area of the university. There’s simply no good reason why what he was doing should be prohibited,” said Rebecca Glenberg, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. “It makes no sense. I mean, are they going to prohibit someone from wearing a political T-shirt in that area?”
Glenberg said the ACLU will represent Khan in his criminal case, and they have not ruled out a lawsuit against the university.
“Our feeling is that universities are supposed to be places where free expression and open debate are encouraged, so it’s distressing to see a student treated this way for expressing his views,” she said.
—by Evan Mayor, SPLC staff writer
For resources on “free-speech zones,” visit: