George Washington University About to Ban Religious Symbol From Campus

George Washington University About to Ban Religious Symbol From CampusWASHINGTON, D.C. (April 16, 2015): George Washington University is gearing up to permanently ban from campus an important religious symbol, one which is sacred to many Hindus and Buddhists in India and elsewhere, because it looks like something else which may upset the sensibilities of some students.

The hearing will be held under the auspicious of Gabriel Slifka, George Washington University Director of the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, and Peter Konwerski, VP and Dean of Student Affairs.

The University has seemingly taken the position that posting anything which could be mistaken for a Nazi swastika – even if it is of a different color and orientation, and/or might be seen as “rotating” in the opposite direction – cannot be displayed on campus, even by students who are Hindus or Buddhists.

This effective banning of a sacred religious symbol, simply because it may look like something else, seems to be unprecedented. What could be more discriminatory than prohibiting Hindus and Buddhists from displaying their sacred Sanskrit svastika while permitting Christian, Jewish, and others to display their symbols, perhaps on a T-shirt?

George Washington University says that it “is committed to the protection of free speech, and guarantees students the right to “express opinions publicly and privately,” and even to “distribute pamphlets” and “conduct orderly demonstrations.” Court have frequently held that such official written promises provide students of private colleges with the same free speech protections as those who attend state institutions of higher education.

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It’s like banning the 6-pointed Jewish Star of David because some people might mistake it for the pentagram symbol and human sacrifice, or expelling a student for using the word “niggardly” because other students may mistake it for a racist word and get upset, says George Washington University public interest law professor John Banzhaf.

Banzhaf, in a legal memo to key campus officials, has suggested that the University and its President may already be liable for defamation and other civil torts.

Also, he argues, all those who participate in the coming hearing to finalize the initial private ruling may be legally liable for discrimination based upon religion in violation of the D.C. Human Rights Act [DCHRA].

When a Jewish student studying Eastern religions recently returned from India with a religious symbol sacred to many Indians and others called a Sanskrit svastika [with a “V”], but another Jewish student initially mistook it for a Nazi swastika [with a “W”], there was initial concern that it was meant as a threat to Jewish students. However, within hours, all was explained, the student withdrew his complaint and said he had nothing to fear, and the campus police discontinued their investigation.

In addition to concerns about free speech and academic freedom, Banzhaf has been a major critic of the basic unfairness of most campus disciplinary proceedings, and one of his proposals for dealing with the problem has now been reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, U.S. News, Washington Examiner, The New York Times Company (NYSE:NYT), and National Public Radio.

When dozens of law professors from major universities like Harvard and U. of Penn are publicly criticizing their own schools for violating students’ basis rights to due process and fundamental fairness, perhaps its time for the public – through the media – to become concerned.

Here in the nation’s capital, at a time when many are debating the issue of religious freedom in the abstract, a major university is preparing to expel a student for posting a religious symbol, and effectively ban that symbol and others which might resemble it, from the campus in an obscure proceeding.


Professor of Public Interest Law

George Washington University Law School,

FAMRI Dr. William Cahan Distinguished Professor,

Fellow, World Technology Network,

Founder, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH)

2000 H Street, NW


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