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A Victory for Free Speech

Anna Christensen,
National Security Project
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July 20, 2009

In a victory for free speech and academic discourse, last week the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower-court decision upholding the government’s exclusion of Swiss scholar Tariq Ramadan from the United States. Professor Ramadan, a leading scholar of the Muslim world, was offered a tenured professorship at the University of Notre Dame in 2004, but could not take up the post because the government revoked his U.S. visa. The government initially justified its decision by claiming that Professor Ramadan had “endorsed our espoused” terrorism. After the ACLU filed suit, the government abandoned this claim but continued to defend his exclusion on the grounds that he had made small donations to a Swiss charity that the government alleged had given money to Hamas.

But as the court correctly pointed out in the decision issued last Friday, the charity in question wasn’t designated as a terrorist group until years after Professor Ramadan made the donations. When he made the donations, Professor Ramadan had no idea that the charity was providing funds to Hamas. The appeals court held that the government could not bar Professor Ramadan (or any other individual accused of providing “material support” for terrorism) without giving him the “opportunity to demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that he did not know, and reasonably should not have known, that the recipient of his contributions was a terrorist organization.”

The appeals court also made clear that barring invited scholars from the United States deprives U.S. citizens of their First Amendment rights to hear ideas and engage in face-to-face debate with foreign scholars. The exclusion of scholars on ideological grounds stymies the global exchange of ideas.

The government should not use its power to police the border as a tool of censorship. The United States has a sad — and long discredited — history of engaging in ideological exclusion. Through the years, many renowned writers and thinkers — including Nobel Prize winners Doris Lessing, Pablo Neruda, and Gabriel García Márquez — have been denied entry to the United States because of their “dangerous” political views. This practice was revived by the Bush administration after 9/11.

The appeals court ruling Friday should serve as an opportunity for the Obama administration to disown the Bush administration’s misguided policy of excluding scholars because of their political views. The Obama administration should also end Professor Ramadan’s unjustified exclusion and reconsider the exclusion of other foreign scholars, writers and artists who were barred from the country by the Bush administration on ideological grounds. These currently excluded voices could contribute greatly to academic dialogue in the U.S.

The ACLU has an online petition calling on Attorney General Holder and Secretaries Clinton and Napolitano to stop censoring ideas at America’s borders. Click here to send your message!

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