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NYCLU And ACLU Ask Federal Court To Lift Visa Ban On Tariq Ramadan

Charging that the government is violating the rights of Americans to hear constitutionally protected speech, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union today asked a federal court to prevent the Departments of State and Homeland Security from barring a prominent Swiss scholar from entering the country to speak to American audiences.

In legal papers filed today, the NYCLU and ACLU said the government wrongfully used a section of the Patriot Act known as the “ideological exclusion” provision to deny a nonimmigrant visa to Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss citizen who now teaches at the University of Oxford. As a result, Ramadan will be unable to speak at events organized by the NYCLU’s and ACLU’s clients, the American Academy of Religion, the American Association of University Professors and PEN American Center.

“The government does not have the authority to exclude foreign scholars at the border simply because it disagrees with their political views,” said ACLU staff attorney Jameel Jaffer, who is lead counsel in this case. “To invest the government with that authority would be to invest it with sweeping power to manipulate and censor debate inside the United States.”

The NYCLU and ACLU are seeking a preliminary ruling that the government cannot bar entry to Ramadan based on the ideological exclusion provision, which authorizes the exclusion of foreigners who endorse terrorism. The groups say that there is no evidence – and the government has never pointed to any – that Ramadan approves of terrorism. In fact, they say, Ramadan has repeatedly condemned terrorism. Two days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Ramadan published an open letter calling on Muslims to condemn terrorism, and in 2002, Ramadan joined a formal “Statement Rejecting Terrorism” issued by 199 prominent Muslims and Muslim organizations from around the world. Ramadan also strongly condemned last year’s bus and subway bombings in London, and recently accepted an invitation from Prime Minister Tony Blair to join a government task force to combat extremism in the United Kingdom.

Ramadan is not being excluded because of any alleged support of terrorism, but because he is a vocal critic of American policy in the Middle East, and of what he calls the “deleterious effects of unregulated consumerism.”

“It would be absurd to suggest that this criticism – the same kind of criticism that appears every morning in the editorial pages of major American newspapers – amounts to approval of terrorism,” write the NYCLU and ACLU in today’s motion.

“As the State Department interprets it, the ideological exclusion provision authorizes the exclusion of any foreign person who has voiced an ‘irresponsible expression of opinion’ – in other words, any foreign person who has criticized the government,” said Arthur Eisenberg, Legal Director of the NYCLU. “Under a constitution that protects the freedom of speech, that’s an unacceptable standard.”

In a declaration submitted to the court today, Ramadan writes that he first learned his visa had been revoked on July 28, 2004, nine days before he and his family were to move to Indiana where he had accepted a tenured teaching position at the University of Notre Dame. Since then, Ramadan has been forced to reject numerous invitations from American organizations to lecture, attend conferences and meet with scholars in the United States, including an invitation from the Archbishop of Canterbury to participate in a seminar at Georgetown University.

In December 2005, Ramadan reapplied for a visa and was personally interviewed in Switzerland by a representative of the Department of Homeland Security, who, he says, asked him questions about his political associations and viewpoints. Ramadan said he was told that consideration of his application would likely take close to two years, and that he could not be assured of receiving a visa even at the end of that process.

The NYCLU and ACLU are asking the court to issue a preliminary ruling to allow Ramadan to attend PEN American Center’s “World Voices” Festival in New York, from April 25 to 30.

The American Academy of Religion, the American Association of University Professors and PEN American Center also submitted affidavits to the court today arguing that the visa denial violates the First Amendment rights of their members and impoverishes academic debate inside the United States.

The case is before Judge Paul A. Crotty of the Southern District of New York. In addition to Jaffer and Goodman, attorneys in the case are Judy Rabinovitz and Lucas Guttentag of the ACLU Immigrants Rights Project; Arthur N. Eisenberg of the NYCLU; and New York immigration lawyer Claudia Slovinsky.

Today’s motion and the Ramadan and plaintiff declarations are online at

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