New York, NY, November 10, 2005—PEN American Center joined the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Professors today in filing a lawsuit to compel the Departments of State, Justice, and Homeland Security and the CIA to release documents that will shed light on whether the United States is barring prominent international figures from visiting the United States because of their political views.

The suit follows the failure of these agencies to respond to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that the ACLU filed in March for records concerning the exclusion of foreign scholars and intellectuals from the United States under Section 411 of the USA PATRIOT Act. It aims to force the agencies to release the information as required by law. 

“We are joining this lawsuit for two reasons,” PEN American Center Executive Director Michael Roberts said today in New York. “The first is our deep concern that the United States is once again denying access to scholars and thinkers for political reasons. The second is our growing alarm over government secrecy—in this case, its failure to comply with a lawful FOIA request for information on how it makes decisions about who is allowed to visit the United States and address American audiences.” Roberts noted that ideological exclusion and government secrecy deprive writers, and all Americans, of information essential to both understanding the international challenges facing the United States and evaluating how U.S. policies affect those challenges.

Section 411(a)(1)(A)(iii) of the USA PATRIOT Act authorizes the government to refuse admission to the United States to individuals who “have used [their] position of prominence within any country to endorse or espouse terrorist activity, or to persuade others to support terrorist activity or a terrorist organization, in a way that the Secretary of State has determined undermines United States efforts to reduce or eliminate terrorist activities.” But reports that the U.S. revoked the visa of respected Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan last year under Section 411 raised fears that government agencies may be using the provision to bar prominent critics of U.S. foreign policy. The action prevented Professor Ramadan from assuming a teaching position at the University of Notre Dame.

Other important international scholars and intellectuals have been barred from traveling to the U.S. in circumstances that suggest ideological exclusion. Dora Maria Tellez, a prominent Nicaraguan scholar and former government official who had been offered a teaching position at Harvard, was denied a visa, and a group of 61 Cuban scholars was prevented from entering the U.S. to participate in a Latin American studies conference in Las Vegas last October.

“These incidents denied hundreds, perhaps thousands of Americans the opportunity to hear directly from these internationally recognized thinkers,” said Roberts. “That alone is disturbing. But we know that others have experienced similar difficulties and that current policies are also discouraging important literary and intellectual figures from considering invitations to the United States. There is a chilling effect—and what is being chilled is the First Amendment right of all Americans to seek a full range of information and ideas.”

“We at PEN have been down this road before,” said Larry Siems, Director of PEN’s Freedom to Write and International Programs. “Throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, we worked on behalf of writers and thinkers who were victims of the ideological-exclusion provisions of the McCarran-Walter Act—a list that included such writers as Julio Cortázar, Graham Greene, Farley Mowat, Pablo Neruda, Doris Lessing, and Gabriel García Márquez. As an organization dedicated to promoting the free exchange of information and ideas around the world, we believed that preventing Americans from hearing from such figures was both unconstitutional and immoral.”

“Excluding those with challenging or critical viewpoints is just as wrong now,” Siems insisted. “In the post-9/11 world, where the future depends more than ever on bridging intellectual chasms and cultural divides, we believe that exclusion is also self-defeating.”

PEN American Center is the largest of the 141 centers of International PEN, the global association of writers dedicated to protecting the freedom to write and promoting the free flow of literature, information, and ideas throughout the world. It sponsors public literary programs and educational forums including PEN World Voices and regularly invites writers from around the world to participate in those events. In its Core Freedoms Campaign, PEN is working to restore free expression protections threatened by the USA PATRIOT Act; protect public access to governmental information and a full range of voices from the United States and around the world; and promote policies that reflect and advance international human rights standards.

More Information

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