Six Southwest Airlines passengers who were booted off the plane for allegedly interfering with a flight crew said in federal court documents that they were the victims of ethnic bias.
The men, who are said to be members of a San Diego soccer team, are accused of being vulgar and verbally abusive toward the flight crew during the September incident.
The San Diego-Chicago flight had to land in Amarillo so the men could be arrested.
Khalid Yohana, 19; Wasim Imad Shaker, 23; Essa Solaqa, 20; Ghazwan Assad Shaba, 21; Jonathan Khalid Petras, 20; and Saiman Hermez, 19, had refused orders from the flight attendants and challenged their authority, according to federal officials.
Several weeks later, a federal grand jury in Amarillo indicted Yohana, Shaker, Solaqa and Petras.
In court papers, a defense attorney said in a motion to dismiss the indictment that all four men are Chaldean Christians whose families came to the U.S. “most recently from Iraq.”
“The Aramaic or Syriac language they spoke on the flight sounds, to the untrained ear, like Arabic,” the motion said.
If federal law makes it illegal for a passenger to elicit fear in a flight attendant, then “minorities and particularly those of Middle Eastern descent are much more likely to be targeted for criminal enforcement than those who ‘look’ Caucasian and speak English without an accent,” the motion said.
The lawyer, Joshua I. Skora, also argued in his motion that the First Amendment protected his client’s speech during the flight.
The prosecution of the men could have a chilling effect on passengers who believe a flight attendant is mistreating them, he said.
“Americans are permitted to express frustration at what they perceive to be mistreatment, and they are allowed to do so using colorful language when, in their view, the situation warrants it,” Skora said. “We do not punish people for ‘talking back’ in this country.”
An FBI affidavit said the men refused to put their seat backs and tray tables up when asked prior to takeoff.
Later, the men were talking loudly and “using profanity,” the affidavit said.
When the flight attendant asked them to quiet down, they said: “We can be as loud as we want and do whatever the [expletive] we want on here,” according to the FBI.
When the flight attendant refused their request for alcohol, they “became aggressive by lunging forward” at her, causing her to feel threatened by their “aggressive behavior,” the affidavit said.
The men accused the attendants of being racist and called the second flight attendant a “pig” as she walked away, the FBI affidavit said.
Assistant U.S. attorney Joshua Frausto said in a court filing that the defendants’ conduct and words to the flight attendants “can be reasonably construed” as threats, which are not protected by the First Amendment.
The government will show that the intimidation was caused not only by the defendants’ speech, but their “disruptive, unruly and disobedient” conduct, he said.