A TSA agent waits for passengers to walk through a detector.

A TSA agent waits for passengers to walk through a detector. Photo: AFP

Philadelphia:A former university student who was detained for several hours at an airport after he was found carrying Arabic language flashcards that included the words "bomb" and "terrorist" has had his bid to sue federal agents rejected by a US appeals court.

Nicholas George sought to sue three Transportation Security Administration agents and two FBI agents over the August 2009 detention at Philadelphia International Airport, saying they violated his free speech rights and conducted an improper search and arrest based on the flashcards and a book critical of US policy in the Middle East.

A district judge rejected the agents' assertion of immunity, but the 3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling in a decision issued Tuesday.

Mr George was returning from his home in a Philadelphia suburb to Pomona College in California, where he was studying Arabic, when TSA agents saw the words "bomb" and "terrorist" among his flashcards and called police.

Mr George was detained for nearly five hours, two of them in handcuffs in a city police station at the airport.

Chief Judge Theodore McKee, writing for the three-judge panel, said Mr George clearly had the right to possess and use such flashcards and the book and called the detention by the TSA officials "at the outer boundary" of constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

But he said the agents were justified in detaining Mr George briefly to investigate.

"It is simply not reasonable to require TSA officials to turn a blind eye to someone trying to board an airplane carrying Arabic-English flashcards with words such as `bomb', `to kill', etc," he wrote.

"Rather, basic common sense would allow those officials to take reasonable and minimally intrusive steps to inquire into the potential passenger's motivations."

In arguments in federal court in October 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union, representing Mr George, said the search should have ended when it was clear Mr George wasn't carrying any weapons or explosives. The appeals court acknowledged that "much of the concern dissipated" after Mr George was found to be unarmed but that didn't mean further inquiry was unwarranted.

AP