ACLU Challenges Patriot Act Provision Used to Exclude Prominent Swiss Scholar from the United States

January 25, 2006 12:00 am

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U.S. Scholars and Writers Say Government Should End Censorship at the Border

NEW YORK — The American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit challenging a provision of the Patriot Act that is being used to deny visas to foreign scholars whose political views the government disfavors. The lawsuit charges that the “ideological exclusion” provision is being used to prevent United States citizens and residents from hearing speech that is protected by the First Amendment.

“Barring people from the country because of their ideas skews and impoverishes political debate inside the United States,” said ACLU staff attorney Jameel Jaffer. “The government should not be using the immigration laws as instruments of censorship.”

The ACLU lawsuit was filed on behalf of the American Academy of Religion, the American Association of University Professors and PEN American Center, and also names as a plaintiff Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss intellectual who is widely regarded as a leading scholar of the Muslim world. The U.S. government revoked Ramadan’s visa in August 2004, preventing him from assuming a tenured teaching position at the University of Notre Dame and from accepting invitations to address various audiences inside the United States. Although neither Ramadan nor the university was given an explanation for the revocation, the Department of Homeland Security has cited the ideological exclusion provision as the basis for its decision.

“The exclusion of Professor Ramadan illustrates that the Patriot Act and other post-9/11 laws and policies may be serving to increase American isolation at a time when international dialogue is more critical than ever,” said Salman Rushdie, President of PEN American Center, which has invited Ramadan to speak to its members in New York this April during its World Voices Festival.

The provision challenged by today’s lawsuit was enacted as part of the Patriot Act and further expanded in 2005. In its current form, the ideological exclusion provision allows the government to deny a visa to anyone whom the government believes has “endorse[d] or espouse[d] terrorist activity” or “persuade[d] others to endorse or espouse terrorist activity.” However, the ACLU said the government is using the provision more broadly to deny entry to people whose political views it disfavors. The ACLU complaint filed today asserts that “the government’s use of the [ideological exclusion] statute to exclude Professor Ramadan is illustrative of the statute’s malleability and reach.”

The ACLU noted that Ramadan has been a consistent and vocal critic both of terrorism and those who use it. In August 2005, Ramadan accepted Prime Minister Tony Blair’s invitation to join a U.K. government taskforce to examine the roots of extremism in Britain. In the same month, he was described in The Forward as having used “his prominence to urge young Muslims in the West to choose integration over disaffection.” Time magazine recently recognized Ramadan as one of 100 “innovators” of the 21st century, labeling him “the leading Islamic thinker among Europe’s second- and third-generation Muslim immigrants.” Ramadan is currently a visiting fellow at St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford.

The lawsuit, which names as defendants U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, seeks a declaration that the ideological exclusion provision is unconstitutional on its face and as applied in the case of Ramadan. The lawsuit also seeks an injunction preventing the government from relying on the ideological exclusion provision to exclude Ramadan or any other foreign national.

“In a world where religion plays so central a role in social and political events, as well as in the lives of communities and individuals, there is a critical need for greater understanding of religious traditions and issues,” said Barbara DeConcini, Executive Director of the American Academy of Religion. “The United States government’s exclusion of scholars like Tariq Ramadan greatly impedes our ability to have thoughtful in-person discussions, which, in turn, impedes greater public understanding of vital issues confronting our nation.”

Today’s lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. In addition to Jaffer, attorneys for the plaintiffs are Melissa Goodman, Ann Beeson and Judy Rabinovitz of the ACLU; Arthur Eisenberg of the New York Civil Liberties Union; and immigration lawyer Claudia Slovinsky.

“The State Department has interpreted this provision as allowing the exclusion of foreign scholars who engage in ‘irresponsible expression,’” said Eisenberg. “But State Department officials cannot prevent Americans from hearing from foreign scholars who may criticize the policies of the Bush administration in ways that the administration deems irresponsible. Such a standard cannot possibly satisfy First Amendment requirements.”

In a related Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) case, a judge in the Southern District of New York on Friday ordered the government to produce documents concerning the practice of ideological exclusion. The Department of State must release documents by February 28, 2006, and two components of the Department of Homeland Security and the Central Intelligence Agency must release documents by March 15, 2006. The FOIA request was filed on March 16, 2005 by the ACLU, American Association of University Professors and PEN American Center.

For more information, including additional statements from the organizations involved in the lawsuit, go to

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