Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Why ideological exclusion violates the rights of us all

Originally posted by ACLU of Massachusetts Executive Director Carol Rose, on Boston.com.

Defenders of free speech around the world are outraged over the U.S. State Department's denial of a visa to Colombian Journalist Hollman Morris. Morris was scheduled to participate in the prestigious Nieman Foundation journalism program at Harvard University starting this fall, until the U.S. State Department decided to exclude him from our shores.

Morris is a highly acclaimed television producer, who has reported extensively on the long and complex civil war in Colombia. In particular, he has exposed both the impact of war on its victims and abuses by the Colombian government's intelligence services-- undoubtedly upsetting Colombian government officials. Morris also is the recipient of the Human Rights Defender Award from Human Rights Watch for his war coverage.

The State Department won't say why Morris is being kept out, but Morris reportedly was told by local consular officials that he was being denied a visa under the "terrorist activities" section of the Patriot Act.

A Boston Globe editorial, "Reporting is Not Terrorism," rightly calls for the State Department to grant Mr. Morris a waiver that would permit him to enter the United States. Meanwhile, free speech groups, including the ACLU, American Association of University Professors and PEN American Center, as well as the Committee to Protect Journalists, Open Society Institute, and others have sent letters to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to grant a visa.

Beyond that, it's time for the State Department to end "ideological exclusions" -- the practice of keeping out of our country authors, journalists and scholars based on their political speech and peaceful associations.

Ideological exclusion endangers journalists worldwide, according to Nieman Foundation Curator, Robert Giles: "It would represent a major recasting of press freedom doctrine if journalists, by establishing contacts with so-called terrorist organizations in the process of gathering news, open themselves to accusations of terrorist activities and the possibility of being barred from travel to the United States."

But there is another victim of the State Department's practice of ideological exclusion: the American people.

We -- as Americans -- have a First Amendment right to hear what Morris and other notable thinkers from around the world have to say and to engage with them in face-to-face dialogues. When our government excludes journalists, scholars, authors and poets from our country, the First Amendment rights of the American people also are violated.

Sadly, ideological exclusion has been used by virtually every administration in recent U.S. history to keep the Americans from engaging with people who view our nation from the perspective of distant shores. The list of people who have been excluded from the United States based on their ideology is a veritable "who's who" of famous authors, scholars, poets, journalists, and dissidents.

Ideological exclusion was codified in modern times during the Red Scare. In 1952, Congress passed the McCarran-Walter Act, permitting the government to use vague accusations of communism to exclude such notables as Canadian prime minister-to-be Pierre Trudeau, British writer Graham Greene and British silent-screen comedian Charlie Chaplin.

In subsequent years, famous novelists Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Doris Lessing were excluded, as was environmentalist and humor writer Farley Mowat of Canada. Poets, playwrights and Nobel Laureates also have been among the excluded, notably Chilean poet and Nobel Laureate Pablo Neruda and Italian playwright and Nobel Laureate Dario Fo.

In the 1990s, "terrorism" replaced "communism" as the primary basis for ideological exclusion. It was on this basis, for example, that Nelson Mandela was excluded from the United States (until an embarrassed Congress quietly passed legislation taking him off a terrorist list so that he could come to the United States after his release from Robben Island prison).

Soon thereafter, Congress resurrected the practice of excluding people on the basis of their ideas and associations as part of the USA Patriot Act. Although nominally directed at terrorism -- just as the Cold War laws had been directed at communism -- provisions of the Patriot Act effectively permit our government to use immigration laws and ever-expanding terrorism watch lists as instruments of censorship.

One of the more amusing responses to ideological exclusion came when the government denied award-winning British novelist Ian McEwan (author of the best-selling book and movie, "Atonement") entry into the country in 2004. After obtaining a waiver, McEwan began his remarks to an audience of 2,500 people in Seattle by thanking the Department of Homeland Security "for protecting the American public from British novelists."

Musicians also have been targeted for exclusion. In 2004, Yusuf Islam (known to most of us as "Cat Stevens") was turned away from a recording session with Dolly Parton. Two years later, London-based hip-Hop artist, M.I.A., was denied a visa to work with American music producers on her next album -- someone in the government didn't like the lyrics in her songs.

Increasingly, our government has targeted academics for exclusion -- a practice that should be of particular concern to those of us who live in a city that is home to some of the world's greatest institutions of higher learning. In June 2005, the government excluded Dora Maria Tellez -- a Nicaraguan historian and former leader of the Sandanista Revolution -- who had been appointed as the Robert F. Kennedy Visiting Professor of Latin American Studies at Harvard.

The government also denied a visa to South African sociology professor Adam Habib, who was invited to address a number of academic institutions in Boston and elsewhere, but was denied a visa after participating in anti-war protests and speaking out against torture and indefinite detention. Swiss scholar Tariq Ramadan, who had been appointed to a professorship at Notre Dame, similarly was turned away by the State Department after he published remarks critical of U.S. foreign policy.

Fortunately, legal challenges by the ACLU on behalf of both Professor Habib and Professor Ramadan led to the issuance of a waiver by the State Department, thus permitting them to enter and engage in academic exchanges here in the U.S.

Professor Habib recently spoke at Harvard Law School, saying, "I've always been opposed to terrorism, even when I was an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa….We have to recognize that criticism is the lifeblood of a democracy. When the United States as a great power undermines academic freedom, civil liberties, and its own Constitution, it has ripple effects across the globe."

The State Department should move quickly to issue a visa waiver for Hollman Morris so that he can begin his Nieman fellowship in August. And then the Obama administration and Congress should abandon the anti-democratic practice of ideological exclusion altogether.

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