Born in Beirut, he grew up in several different Middle East countries before he became a law professor and social justice attorney who, at 42 years old, argued and won a landmark civil rights case last year before the U.S. Supreme Court.
At the Feb. 17 virtual Common Hour, Ramzi Kassem, the founding director of Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Reliability (CLEAR), shared his experiences in an interview setting in which Franklin & Marshall Adjunct Assistant Professor for Russian Nina Bond posed questions.
“How were you able to transform your personal experiences into something bigger, into really a principle impulse?” Bond asked.
Kassem, professor of law at the City University of New York, responded by talking about each individual having to “build their own empathy.”
“We’re all defined and shaped and driven by our experiences,” he said. “Even the more privileged ones among us, across the board, still have an experience of an injustice, for example, that they can use on a platform to build their own empathy with the injustices that are suffered by others; and to drive their work to increasing social justice in our country and in our world.”
In Tanzin v. Tanvir, the case Kassem argued before the Supreme Court on Oct. 6, 2020, the limits of the 1993 Religious Freedoms Restoration Act were tested, perhaps not in the way the authors of the law ever anticipated.
In December, the court unanimously ruled that Kassem’s clients—three American Muslim men—could seek monetary compensation from individual FBI agents who imposed unjust conditions on the men when they refused to spy on their religious communities.
The agents placed the three men on the No-Fly List, which prevented Kassem’s clients from seeing their immediate family members abroad and cost them their livelihoods. It was the Department of Justice under the Trump administration that asked the court to hear the case.
Kassem said the government argued that the action of the FBI agents “was a national security matter, which wasn’t true. … They said allowing damages against federal officials was going to turn people away from becoming federal officials, and it was going to bring the federal government to a grinding halt—all of that has been disproven empirically.”
Kassem cited “studies that show that in other areas where there are damages against federal officials, damages are rarely awarded; when they are awarded, those officials are indemnified by the government. The federal government not only pays for their legal representation, which is what happened in the Tanvir case … but the government also will reimburse the agents if they lose, ultimately, and have to pay damages to people like my clients.”
As a legal case, Tanzin v. Tanvir challenged the rights violations by the “U.S. security state” while reflecting the concept and practice of “rebellious lawyering,” a term coined by UCLA Professor of Law Emeritus Gerald López. It’s considered a way to bridge the gap between legal training and activist law practice in service of social justice.
Despite the Trump administration’s contention, Kassem said the court’s upholding of Tanzin v. Tanvir, “might deter them from wrongdoing, which is the sort of deterrence that we want, but it’s not going to stop people from becoming FBI agents.”
Kassem was a law student at Columbia University in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and collapsed the city’s two tallest buildings. That moment, he said, changed the trajectory of his life.
“It’s really important to acknowledge the role of luck,” he said. “I didn’t plan to do the things that I did in college. Even when I was in law school, I didn’t have a clear sense of what sort of law practice I would have, but things happen.”
The world changed for everyone that day, but it was going to become particularly difficult for Muslims because the men who flew two jet airliners into the twin towers also happened to be Muslim.
“Very quickly, it became clear to me that I had an obligation to do something about what I was seeing happening around me and what I knew was happening all over the world after 9/11, and that kind of took me in the direction that I ultimately went and brought me to the point where I am now,” Kassem said.
“I think we have to be honest with ourselves about what brings us, what draws us, to a particular realm of activity, and we have to actively build our own empathy, our own ability to connect with the plight of others. That’s the way we can move forward as a society.”