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What Ann Coulter and Hillary Clinton have in common

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  April 1, 2010 06:31 PM

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What do Ann Coulter and Hillary Clinton have in common? These doyennes from opposite ends of the American political spectrum both have been in the news defending freedom of speech.

Coulter, a right-wing polemicist, was kept off the stage at the University of Ottawa in Canada last week by protestors who effectively used a "heckler's veto" to keep Coulter from speaking after she made ignorant and offensive remarks about Muslims.

Coulter expressed outrage, saying, "I go to the best schools, Harvard, the Ivy League and those kids are too intellectually proud to threaten speakers."

Given Coulter's stated commitment to free speech, you'd think she and her friends over at FOX television would applaud the recent move by Secretary of State Clinton to lift a Bush administration-imposed ban on two renowned scholars who were kept out of the U.S. because of their political views. Instead, Fox & Friends objected when one of those scholars -- noted South African political scientist Adam Habib -- was invited to speak at Harvard Law School yesterday.

What is up with that? It sure smells like a double standard to me.

Professor Habib and Professor Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss scholar from Oxford University,
were turned away from our borders by Bush administration officials for no apparent reason other than the fact that they publicly criticized U.S. foreign policy.

Professor Habib had trained in the U.S. and was a frequent visitor to the U.S. He was part of a high-ranking delegation scheduled to meet with officials at the National Science Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control, the World Bank, Columbia University and the Gates Foundation, among others, when he was instead detained for seven hours at JFK airport and thereafter denied a visa to enter the U.S. Professor Ramadan had been offered a job as a professor at Notre Dame when the Bush administration revoked his visa. Although Bush administration officials later accused Professor Ramadan of having once given money to a Swiss charity that, years later, the U.S. government put on a terrorist watch list, the State Department now concedes that neither Professor Ramadan nor Professor Habib were ever true terrorist threats.

To the contrary, both professors are outspoken critics of terrorism. They also have made statements critical of the U.S. invasion of Iraq (a position also espoused by President Obama during the last presidential campaign), and that seems to be the main reason they were excluded from our shores.

Simply put: these scholars were turned away so that we, the American people, couldn't hear what they have to say in person.

It's called "ideological exclusion." And it's a practice you find in dictatorships like Iran and Zimbabwe -- and in the less noble moments of American history as well.

The list of people kept out of the United States under policies of ideological exclusion reads like a veritable "Who's Who" of people most of us would like to meet: South African leader Nelson Mandela, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, poet Pablo Neruda, and authors Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to name just a few.

This time around, the ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging the practice of ideological exclusion under the legal theory that the American people have a right to hear what people like Professors Habib and Ramadan have to say and that government censorship at the borders is wrong.

With legal proceedings still going on in both cases, the Obama Administration reviewed the Bush era decisions and Secretary of State Clinton agreed that neither Habib nor Ramadan should be barred from coming to the U.S. for the reasons – acknowledged now to be baseless – that had been given by the previous administration.

Thanks to Secretary Clinton's willingness to lift the Bush ban, Professor Habib yesterday was able to join a delegation of distinguished scholars visiting Harvard University and was able to talk -- face-to-face -- with Americans who wanted to hear what he had to say:

"When the United States as a superpower violates civil liberties, it has a ripple effect across the globe," said Professor Habib. "This case was very important because it opens the space for us to talk and engage as human beings… This is a case about principles."

In other words, Habib was eloquent and inspiring -- and not the least bit scary.

By wiping out the ideological exclusion orders against scholars like Professors Habib and Ramadan, Secretary of State Clinton demonstrates our nation's willingness to air all views -- including dissenting political views. It's a fundamental principle of American freedom that Anthony Lewis so eloquently defends in his must-read book, "Freedom for the Thoughts We Hate." As a next step, the Obama Administration should announce that it categorically rejects the practice of ideological exclusion as a violation of freedom of speech in all cases.

Let the American people hear what Professors Habib and Ramadan and others like them have to say -- in person. If Ann Coulter comes to Harvard, we should let her speak as well. And when we disagree, let us do so face to face.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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