Do freedom of movement restrictions echo the McCarthy era?

In a few cases, keeping people out who foster hate-filled views may help preserve public order.

A Pamela Geller-led group has commissioned controversial subway ads in New York and San Francisco [AFP]

The British government recently declared Americans Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer personae non gratae in Great Britain by denying them entry to the country. Geller and Spencer are not criminals or enemies of the state. They are anti-Muslim bloggers, who Home Secretary Theresa May banned because of “statements that may foster hatred which might lead to inter-community violence in the UK”.

Restricting entry because of a person’s ideas and rhetoric recalls the McCarthy era of US history when visa applicants had to answer the question “Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?” In 1952, British writer Graham Greene was summarily expelled from the US because of his fleeting membership in the Communist party while at Oxford University in the early 1920s. The power to limit access to foreigners because of their beliefs can easily lead to government abuse or to public ridicule.

But in a limited number of cases, keeping people out can be a useful tool for preserving public order and for sending a signal about a country’s values. It has its place in liberal democracies if the extremists are extreme enough, and if the domestic context of the moment suggests there is a high risk to letting them in. Last week’s blogger ban meets both of those standards.

Standing up for freedom of movement and for freedom of speech is critical...At the same time, granting authorities latitude to ban demagogic speakers that stir up hatred or violence is a perfectly legitimate step.


Geller and Spencer are rabid anti-Muslim activists who have done more than their fair share to foment fear and hatred of Islam and its followers. In addition to their blogs Atlas Shrugs and Jihad Watch, they run a website called Stop Islamisation of America, which rolls under the banner “Fundamentalist Islam wants Shariah to replace the US Constitution and fundamentally transform America: WAKE UP AMERICA!” They helped lead the charge against the Park51 complex in 2009-2010, which they labeled the “911 Mosque,” and, working through their American Freedom Defense Initiative, they were responsible for ads in the New York City subway in 2012 that read, “In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilised man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

For some people, Geller and Spencer are heroes who are willing to speak tough truths in challenging times. Anders Behring Breivik was a particular fan , praising the two and citing their blogs repeatedly in his manifesto explaining his bloody 2011 massacre in Norway that killed 77 people.

For anti-racist activists, the pair are a true danger. The Southern Poverty Law Center has branded Geller “the anti-Muslim movement’s most visible and flamboyant figurehead.” The anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate campaigned against access to Britain for both, describing them as “among the most extreme anti-Muslim activists in the world.”

As nasty as these ideas may be, restricting access to a liberal democracy because of “unacceptable behaviours” can easily become a dangerous government habit. Geller and Spencer have undoubtedly stirred up hatred against Muslims. That may be a crime in many European countries, but it is not illegal in Britain unless the speech is intentionally threatening. In this case, however, the ban was justified not only by their words, but also by the context of their proposed visit.

Recent tensions

Geller and Spencer were not planning to holiday in Britain, nor were they invited to take part in an intellectual exchange. They were to be guests of the English Defence League at their Armed Forces Day march to Woolwich, where Drummer Lee Rigby was murdered on May 22.

Since late May, there had been a series of tense events involving Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain. Some, like the brutal killing of Rigby and the sentencing of six men for plotting a terror attack on an EDL rally, involved aggressions by Muslims. Others, like the fires started at an Islamic community center and a school, targeted Muslims and may have links to the English Defence League.

In this context, with an increased police presence at potential target sites, and with tensions running high, banning Geller and Spencer was the right choice. The logic was all the more apparent when EDL leaders Tommy Robinson and Kevin Carroll were arrested during their June 29 demonstration for ignoring a police order that restricted the location of their march and rally.

UK deports cleric to face terror charges in Jordan

It is not just Geller and Spencer who have been prevented from entering Britain. In 2009, the government published a list of 16 of the 22 people excluded from the UK between October 2008 and March 2009. It encompassed anti-Muslim activists, racists, and homophobes, but also Islamist radicals, gang leaders, and paramilitary commanders. Britain has slammed its doors on extremists in an equal-opportunity manner.

Britain is far from the only country that bars entry on these grounds. Although the United States has a checkered past when it comes to freedom of movement for people with controversial ideologies, it also closes its borders to individuals who may stir up trouble. In 2010, it reportedly refused entry to none other than EDL-leader Tommy Robinson, who was denied access to the United States when he came to participate in a protest against the Park51 Islamic cultural center.

Standing up for freedom of movement and for freedom of speech is critical if we want to avoid the inanity of McCarthy-era bans. At the same time, granting authorities latitude to ban demagogic speakers that stir up hatred or violence is a perfectly legitimate step. Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer will whine and gnash their teeth, but they’ll do it from the comfort of their American homes instead of from the streets of Britain.

Erik Bleich is a professor of political science and the director of International Politics and Economics at Middlebury College, and is the author of The Freedom to Be Racist? How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism, published by Oxford University Press.

Follow him on Twitter:  @ErikBleich1