Tariq Ramadan, a respected Swiss academic and Muslim scholar, had a job all lined up at the University of Notre Dame in 2004, but the Bush administration prevented him from entering the country. Government officials said he had contributed to a charity believed to have connections to terrorism.
A federal judge supported the government's position in December 2007, and an appeal will be heard next Tuesday by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York.
Now, in a move leading up to that hearing, a coalition of academic and civil liberties groups is calling on the Obama administration to break with the Bush administration's policies on blocking visas of some foreign scholars, writers and activists.
In a letter being released Wednesday, the coalition says so-called ideological exclusion "compromises the vitality of academic and political debate in the United States at a time when that debate is exceptionally important."
After Professor Ramadan was denied entry, the American Civil Liberties Union sued on behalf of him and several organizations interested in his case, including the American Academy of Religion, the American Association of University Professors and PEN American Center. The groups claimed that they had a First Amendment right to hear Professor Ramadan, who had visited the United States dozens of times in the years before his visa was blocked.
The government initially barred Professor Ramadan by invoking the chief antiterrorism law, the USA Patriot Act, which allows the authorities to exclude foreigners who use "a position of prominence within any country to endorse or espouse terrorist activity." Then, after the suit was filed, the government argued that from 1998 to 2002, Professor Ramadan contributed about $1,300 to a charity in Switzerland that the Treasury Department later categorized as a terrorist organization. The charity, Association de Secours Palestinien, was a contributor to Hamas.
In its most recent brief in the case, last July, the government said both that the courts did not have the power to review such decisions and that the Supreme Court had repeatedly allowed the government to bar foreigners because of their views. The Obama administration has filed no briefs and has given no indication what course it will take.
Barring entry to the United States in similar cases is not new: during the cold war, the writers Gabriel García Márquez, Pablo Neruda and Doris Lessing, among others, were kept out. Congress largely repealed the law allowing ideological exclusion in 1990, but the USA Patriot Act, adopted in 2001 and reauthorized in 2006, permits the government to block entry on antiterrorism grounds.
Francine Prose, the president of PEN American Center, called Professor Ramadan "an important and very articulate spokesman" who should be allowed back into the country. Cary Nelson, the president of the American Association of University Professors, said, "It's particularly critical that we have access to the views of moderates in the Muslim world."
Even some of Professor Ramadan's harshest critics say the previous administration made a mistake in keeping him out of the country. In 2007, Paul Berman, a writer in residence at New York University, wrote a biting critique of the professor in The New Republic, suggesting that he could be hiding a measure of Islamic radicalism under a cover of seeming moderation. But this week Mr. Berman said in an e-mail message that "the Bush administration was foolish to bar Tariq Ramadan from entering the United States."
"The freer the debate," Mr. Berman wrote, "the better for everyone."
Jameel Jaffer, director of the National Security Project at the civil liberties union, said the point of the First Amendment was to let people decide for themselves which ideas were worth listening to.
"The government shouldn't have that power," Mr. Jaffer said, "and under the First Amendment it doesn't."