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Cold War-Era Policy Still Giving Free Speech the Chills

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March 18, 2009

What do Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and British novelist Doris Lessing have in common (besides being Nobel Prize-winning writers who have all given us so many literary treasures)? During the Cold War, the U.S. government used “ideological exclusion” laws to ban them from this country because they were suspected of being communist sympathizers. In other words, the U.S. government barred them from the country not because of their actions, but because of their ideas. Sounds like one of those misguided schemes we look back on now with scorn, right? Oh that that were true…in actuality, the Bush administration revived the practice of ideological exclusion to deny visas to dozens more scholars, artists and writers who have been vocal critics of U.S. foreign policy.

In an effort to ensure the new Obama administration doesn’t repeat the mistakes of their predecessors, dozens of free speech, academic, immigration and human rights groups sent a letter to Attorney General Holder, Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Homeland Security Napolitano today urging them to end the sad practice of ideological exclusion. According to the letter, which was signed by groups as wide-ranging as the National Education Association, the Rutherford Institute and the American Sociological Association:

While the government plainly has an interest in excluding foreign nationals who present a threat to national security, no legitimate interest is served by the exclusion of foreign nationals on ideological grounds. To the contrary, ideological exclusion impoverishes academic and political debate inside the United States. It sends the message to the world that our country is more interested in silencing than engaging its critics. It undermines our ability to support political dissidents in other countries. And it deprives Americans of a right protected by the First Amendment.

The letter calls on the government to revisit several specific cases of ideological exclusion, including those of Haluk Gerger, a Turkish journalist; Dora Maria Tellez, a Nicaraguan human rights activist; Adam Habib, a South African political commentator; and Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss scholar of Islam.

Next week, the ACLU will present arguments in the case of Professor Ramadan, a Swiss professor and leading scholar of the Muslim world. In 2004, Professor Ramadan was set to teach at the University of Notre Dame until the government barred him from re-entering the U.S. The ACLU and other organizations are also challenging the exclusion of Professor Adam Habib, one of South Africa’s leading scholars and political commentators.

The ACLU has an online petition calling on Attorney General Holder and Secretaries Clinton and Napolitano to end ideological exclusion. Click here to send your message!

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