New York, NY, February 28, 2007—Responding to the United States government’s most recent explanation for denying a visa to Tariq Ramadan, PEN American Center has joined with the American Academy of Religion, the American Association of University Professors, and the American Civil Liberties Union in filing a new motion in federal court to strike down a Patriot Act provision that allows the government to refuse entry to foreign scholars because of their political views.

PEN and its co-plaintiffs originally went to court in January 2006, after government officials had indicated Ramadan was denied entry to the United States under a Patriot Act provision barring those who “endorse or espouse terrorism.” However, the government abandoned those claims in court proceedings, and instead insisted it needed more timeto process Ramadan’s visa application. The court disagreed, and ordered the government to issue the visa or give the reason for its refusal within 90 days. Just before the deadline, Ramadan was informed that his visa application was being denied because he had donated small amounts of money between 1998 and 2002 to French and Swiss organizations that provide humanitarian aid to Palestinians. The government now asserts that the donations, which Ramadan himself disclosed during his visa interview and which occurred before the Bush Administration listed the charities on a terror watch list, render Ramadan inadmissible under “material support” provisions of the Patriot Act and other legislation.

The group’s new motion asks the court to rule that this latest visa denial violates the First Amendment rights of Americans to hear directly from Professor Ramadan and engage him in face-to-face debate, and that the ideological exclusion provision in general preempts dialogue and debate with foreign scholars whose speech the government disfavors. While the provision is nominally aimed at those who “espouse or endorse terrorist activity,” the provision’s terms are vague; indeed, the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual interprets the provision to apply to those foreign nationals who have voiced “irresponsible expressions of opinion.”

PEN’s Declaration to the court, which details the organization’s wide-ranging efforts to bring international literature and ideas before American audiences and cites other examples of foreign scholars who have been barred from entering the United States since September 11,2001, argues that Ramadan’s treatment illustrates the obvious dangersof such an ill-defined provision:

The government’s invocation of the ideological exclusion provision to revoke Professor Ramadan’s visa in 2004 leads PEN to believe that the government is purposely excluding those authors and scholars whose opinions it disfavors because while Professor Ramadan has always, and without exception, condemned the use of terrorism, he is a well-known critic of U.S. foreign policy. While the government has since tried to disavow its use of the ideological exclusion provision to revoke Professor Ramadan’s teaching visa and has pointed to the material support provision as the basis for his most recent exclusion, there is no evidence to suggest its original revocation was based on material support concerns and not Professor Ramadan’s speech. The government’s new basis for excluding Professor Ramadan seems merely pretextual.

The declaration concludes:

Theideological exclusion provision impedes the principles of freedom of speech for which PEN stands. Robust dialogue is imperative to ensuring that the very serious issues relating to terrorism are properly discussed and dealt with. Controversial scholarship, both foreign and domestic, can easily but mistakenly fall under the ambit of the ideological exclusion provision. Yet this is precisely the type of scholarship that PEN, its members, and the general public must have access to in order to have a serious and meaningful dialogue about some of the most important and pressing issues of our time.

The court will hear arguments on the Summary Judgment motion this spring in New York.

>> Read PEN’s Declaration
 

Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660 ext. 105, lsiems@pen.org