Statement on the Importance of Unrestricted Travel for Scholarly Exchange

The Executive Council approved the following statement at its February 2013 meeting.

The freedom to travel across international borders is enshrined in Article 13(2) of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” That principle is especially important for scholars, researchers, artists, and teachers, whose right to freedom of intellectual exchange may well rest on their ability to travel internationally. Indeed, the freedom to travel is a critical measure of the degree to which a state honors or traduces the principles of an open society; regrettably, it is not uncommon that totalitarian states restrict the movements of their intellectuals precisely to thwart the flow of ideas across national borders.

Even more regrettably, the United States has enforced restrictions on the travel of scholars, researchers, artists, and teachers ever since the passage of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, which provided grounds for the “ideological exclusion” of people espousing beliefs allegedly inimical to the national security of the United States. Those grounds for exclusion persist today in Act 212 of the Immigration and Nationality Act and have provided the basis for the denial of visas to the Swiss theologian Tariq Ramadan in 2004 and the South African scholar Adam Habib in 2006. Those denials were reversed by the State Department in 2010, when it was acknowledged that neither scholar poses a credible security threat to the United States.

The MLA recognizes that there may be legitimate legal, medical, or security grounds on which to deny a person entrance to the United States. We note that in the past the Immigration and Nationality Act has been misused to bar entry to the United States to artists and intellectuals with Communist sympathies even though their beliefs pose no serious threat to American freedoms and even though their exclusion erodes the principles of intellectual freedom the United States should always seek to promote. Thus the United States repeatedly denied an entry visa to the Italian playwright Dario Fo, who was not a member of the Italian Communist Party but a severe critic of Soviet censorship of his work. In 1986, the MLA was directly involved in an instance of ideological exclusion, when the State Department refused to grant an entry visa to the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka after the MLA invited him to accept an honorary membership at its convention in New York. The MLA did not revoke its invitation, as the State Department demanded, because we did not and do not believe that Soyinka could represent a credible threat to the security of the United States, and we extend that principle to Fo, Ramadan, Habib, and all foreign scholars as well.

We believe that as a scholarly society, we have a positive obligation to defend the freedom of scholars and artists to travel across national borders. The MLA will always support the free exchange of ideas among peoples and will always oppose the arbitrary and capricious use of the Immigration and Nationality Act to restrict the exchange of ideas between Americans and artists and intellectuals from outside the United States.