Lawsuit over mistaken ISIS flag could change U.S. law, Kansas attorneys warn

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In this photo entered into evidence by Zanial's attorneys, a man is running with the Malaysian national flag during the party at the SBEA lake in September 2017. In this photo entered into evidence by Zanial's attorneys, a man is running with the Malaysian national flag during the party at the SBEA lake in September 2017.
The ISIS flag. The ISIS flag.
WICHITA, Kan. (KAKE) -

"We've seen this in the news, and on Facebook and on Twitter, more and more now," said Lauren Bonds, an ACLU attorney.  She's talking about cases where Americans call the police on minorities in public spaces.  And she's raising concerns a lawsuit in Kansas could make that legal.

You may remember that last year a Wichita man sued the Spirit Boeing Employee Association (SBEA) over their treatment of him, after a security guard mistook the Malaysian flag for an ISIS flag.  

The association has asked the judge to dismiss the case saying there's no evidence he suffered any loss or injury.  His attorneys are arguing that just being investigated was a form of harm and that dismissing the case now could impact civil rights cases across the country.

"Basically they're saying that under the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and 1964 that nothing prohibits us from, you know, calling the cops and, in this case, calling the FBI on an individual just because you found them suspicious because of their race and religion," Bonds said.

She's talking about what happened in September 2017 when Munir Zanial held a party to celebrate the end of Ramadan and the independence day of his home country, Malaysia.  A security guard saw a flag he reported looking like an American flag defaced with ISIS symbols.  Zanial says it was the Malaysian national flag.

The SBEA turned the guard's report over to Spirit,  Zanial's employer.  Spirit opened an investigation and passed the report on to the FBI, which also began to investigate.  After a month, the FBI agent's report  confirmed what the security guard saw was most likely the Malaysian flag, with no connection to ISIS.

In court paperwork, Zanial says he believes the guard was suspicious because of his race and his religion.

"I think that this isn't a unique phenomenon  to our client," Bonds said.  "This is something that's happening a lot."

The SBEA says in its request for dismissal that Zanial didn't lose his job or suffer any permanent harm from the incident.  Although the association did bar him for six months from using it's private lake for what it calls an unrelated violation of the group's rules.  

Zanial's attorney says if the court dismisses the case it would set a precedent that could make calling the law on someone based purely on their race or religion legal.

"Their claim isn't any particular fact.  They're not saying that, you know, the facts don't bear out or that these facts didn't happen.  They're essentially saying that civil rights laws allow us to discriminate in this way," Bonds said.  "But we don't want that to become the law, either."

If the judge doesn't dismiss the case, it is currently scheduled for trial in September, almost exactly two years after the original incident.

KAKE News did reach out to the SBEA's attorneys, but we have not been able to reach them.  We will continue to do so and bring you an update once we've spoken with them.

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