Secretary of State George Shultz spoke at an international writers' conference in New York this week on the subject of visa denials. It is a sensitive topic among intellectuals; many believe that statutes that allow the exclusion of visitors for vague national security reasons are unworthy of the United States. Mr. Shultz offered these assurances: "The fact is that in the course of this administration a significant change in policy has occurred. When a writer or artist seeks a visa for the purpose of speaking or lecturing or performing in the United States, the administration of the (McCarran-Walter) Act now involves the strong presumption against denying access for foreign policy reasons."

There's no doubt that the secretary is sincere in his concern that the statutes not be abused. Visa denials are reviewed at the highest level at the State Department, and Mr. Shultz, it is said, gives approval to denials only after much consideration. In fiscal year 1985, for example, 33 persons denied entry for national security reasons -- the numbers were almost twice as high in the late '70s -- and of these about half were identified by the FBI as known spies or terrorists.

Nevertheless, the broad and harsh law remains on the books and even the secretary concedes that "judgments are made by human beings and are therefore fallible." He's right; mistakes have been made, and continue to be made.

When the statute was passed in 1952, President Truman vetoed it, declaring, "Seldom has a bill exhibited the distrust evidenced here for citizens and aliens alike." Until 1977, the secretary of state had complete discretion to exclude an alien simply because of his membership in a communist or totalitarian party or a related organization. Now the secretary must certify to bth houses of Congress that the alien's admission would be contrary to the security interests of the United States. But even this restriction has had limited effect since the secretary can avoid notification by using another section of the act to deny visas after a finding that an applicant's entry would be "prejudicial to the public interest."

Terrorists and those who are intent on violence should be kept out. But not writers, political leaders or those who promote unpopular causes. We believe, with Justice Brandeis, that in dealing with propaganda, lies or evil ideas "the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence." No secretary of state should be given the power to stop speech at the border.