Freedom to travel: a basic right that must be protected

Give me your tired, your poor, ... but not your political rabble-rousers! That's basically what the United States government is saying when it denies visitors' visas to foreign writers, artists, scholars, and political advocates who seek temporary entry into this country. This is happening more and more in the name of national security and public protection. The trend is alarming; the motives and objectives behind it should be carefully examined.

Exclusion of those who have been known to engage in terrorist activities or other action that might threaten the security of US citizens is perfectly proper. But barring entry to people solely on the basis of their ''beliefs'' or ''ideas,'' or in anticipation of what they might convey to American audiences, is dangerous business. It is also a clear infringement of the right of US citizens to hear all sides of an issue and decide for themselves.

Equally as bad as such limits on the import of ideas are new restrictions on the export of ideas. As the US Supreme Court moved toward adjournment this term, it handed down what must be viewed as a remarkable decision restricting the travel of US tourists and business people to Cuba. Upholding a Reagan administration policy, the high court decided (by a razor-thin 5-to-4 majority) that limiting the spending of US tourist dollars in Cuba was ''justified by weighty concerns of foreign policy.'' Although the argument in the case dealt with issues of presidential authority, the ruling is seen by many as having been prodded by foreign policy considerations. Simply, the rationale of the administration is this: Money spent by tourists or private parties in Cuba could be used to help destabilize Latin America. And the US government isn't about to encourage that.

Interestingly, journalists, those planning to visit relatives, or Americans on ''official'' government trips don't come under the travel ban to Cuba. Given the closeness of the Supreme Court vote and the narrow basis of the ruling, it is likely that broader questions regarding movement of US citizens will surface in later cases.

Actually, ''freedom to travel'' has had long precedent in this country - girded by some formidable constitutional armor.

A 1958 Supreme Court decision established that ''freedom of movement is basic to our scheme of values.'' In fact, the court said that travel abroad, like domestic travel, ''may be as close to the heart of the individual as the choice of what he eats, or wears, or reads.'' The ruling in this case and several later rulings attacked government interpretations of the Passport Act of 1926 and held that the freedom to travel is a liberty protected by the Fifth Amendment. The court also said that Congress had not intended that passports be denied on the basis of citizens' beliefs or associations.

Before this, government officials routinely refused to issue passports to well-known, outspoken critics of the US, including playwright Arthur Miller, the late singer and actor Paul Robeson, and Nobel laureate Linus Pauling. The justification was that their traveling abroad would be ''contrary to the best interests of the US.''

But then for several decades Congress and the courts tended to broaden the fundamental right of Americans to travel abroad - restricting movement of American citizens only from areas where the US was at war or where armed hostilities were in process or where the safety of travelers was in question.

However, under present government regulations - recently upheld by the Supreme Court - the economic factor has been introduced to help keep American dollars out of a nation whose political ideology and aims are in conflict with US policy. In this case, it's Cuba. But future regulations could expand it to other nations.

This is unwise. Travel restrictions based on the safety of US citizens are valid. Those based on political policy of the White House are not.

Conversely, restricting the entry into the US of people who present a clear danger to the security of Americans is proper and lawful. The McCarran-Walter Act was designed to bar those likely to engage in espionage, sabotage, public disorder, or subversion. It also opened the door to ''ideological exclusion,'' however. Those deemed by government authorities to have hostile political beliefs have either been denied entry altogether or issued limited visas that restrict their movement and activities within the country. Among those excluded for ''ideological'' reasons: Nobel Prize-winning authors Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Czeslaw Milosz, Italian playwright Dario Fo, and French author Regis Debray.

Although there has been some relaxing of ideological restrictions - as a result of the 1977 McGovern Amendment to the McCarran-Walter Act - the obstacles to entry are still formidable. Exclusion of foreign scholars, lecturers, and those seeking to attend professional conferences has not been isolated over the past few years. Visas are routinely denied by the US government, which usually states opposition to providing a ''propaganda platform'' for certain visitors or says that admission would be ''prejudicial to the public interest.''

Clearly those who present a real threat should be excluded. The exchange and examination of ideas are indigenous to a free system, however. Americans have a right to be exposed to - and to weigh and accept or reject - a wide range of social and political concepts. This will strengthen our fabric - not weaken it. And, more important, it will help Americans resist attempted subversion. In short, ideological exclusion is a bad idea. Civil-liberties and church groups, some lawyers' associations, and others are moving to change the law. One hopes they will be successful.

Former US Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson pointed out that it isn't the duty of government to protect the public from false doctrine. ''In this field every person must be his own watchman for truth,'' Justice Jackson wrote, ''because our forefathers did not trust any government to separate the true from the false for us.''

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