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Don't Exclude Ideas at the Border

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May 28, 2009

In 2006, before M.I.A. was rocking the Grammys nine months pregnant, the U.S. government actually denied her a visa to enter this country to work on an album. The reason she was kept out? The lyrics to some of her songs were considered sympathetic to the Tamil Tigers and Palestinian Liberation Organization.

M.I.A. is one of many luminaries in the fields of art, music, literature and academia who have been kept out of this country on ideological grounds. This practice is called “ideological exclusion,” a Red Scare-era policy that former President Bush revived in the wake of 9/11. You can learn more about the other prominent people who have been kept out of the U.S. on ideological grounds by checking out our Flash feature, found at

Yesterday, the ACLU was before a federal court in Boston arguing against the exclusion of Adam Habib, a prominent South African scholar who was denied a visa and is barred from attending speaking engagements in the U.S. Currently Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research, Innovation and Advancement at the University of Johannesburg, Professor Habib is a world-renowned researcher, political commentator, and an expert on issues of democracy, governance, race, and South African politics, public policy, and social movements. Professor Habib has also been a vocal critic of various aspects of U.S. foreign policy, including the war in Iraq.

Although he was a frequent traveler to the U.S. and earned his PhD. from an American university, Professor Habib’s visa was revoked without explanation when he arrived at John F. Kennedy Airport in October 2006. As a result, Professor Habib was unable to attend scheduled meetings with U.S.-based scholars and representatives from U.S. and international agencies, universities, and foundations. In October 2007, the State Department denied Professor Habib’s application for a new visa. The State Department claimed that Habib is barred because he has “engaged in terrorist activities,” but refused to explain the basis for this accusation or provide any evidence to support it.

We believe they denied Professor Adam Habib a visa not because of his actions, but because of his vocal criticism of U.S. foreign policy. His exclusion violates the First Amendment rights of organizations such as the American Sociological Association and the American Association of University Professors that have invited him to speak at conferences in the United States. Last December, Judge George A. O’Toole, Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts ruled that the court had the power to review Professor Habib’s exclusion and that the government must justify its exclusion of Professor Habib. Thus far, the government has refused to do so.

The court issued two rulings yesterday. First, it rejected the government’s argument that the plaintiffs were not injured by Professor Habib’s inability to attend their conferences and events and ruled that the plaintiffs had a right to come to court to complain about the government’s exclusion of Professor Habib. Second, rather than decide the merits of the case immediately – as the ACLU had urged – it will allow a period of factual discovery, in which each side discloses facts to the other. We welcome the opportunity to probe even deeper into the government’s shameful practice of ideological exclusion.

In March, the ACLU and a coalition of free speech organizations sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder calling on them to end the practice of ideological exclusion. Join us, won’t you? Send a letter to Clinton and Holder and tell them to stop excluding ideas at the border.

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