Thomas Borge, the Interior Minister of Nicaragua, Nino Pasti, an Italian former NATO general and Olga Finlay and Leonor Rodriguez Lescano, Cuban experts on women's rights, were all invited to come to this country to lecture and participate in meetings. All four were denied visas after the attorney general determined that their entry would "be prejudicial to the public interest or endanger the welfare, safety or security of the United States." Their would-be hosts, all private American citizens or organizations, brought suits that were the subject of a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals here this week.

The plaintiffs had been unsuccessful in district court where Judge Harold Greene found that the government's practice in visa denial cases was consistent with the statute. The appellate court reversed on a crucial issue, but sent the cases back to Judge Greene for further proceedings under new guidelines. The government has not been directed to issue these particular visas, but in the future, if this decision is upheld, it will have a much more difficult time denying visas on national security grounds. The plaintiffs had argued that exclusion was justified only if an applicant's activities might endanger the public welfare, not if his mere presence would do so, and the court ordered Judge Greene to take more evidence about the intent of Congress on this question. More important, the court ruled that the McGovern amendment, which requires notice to Congress in certain visa-denial cases, applies to these national security cases as well, unless the government can show that some reason other than an applicant's membership in a communist organization threatens national security.

The whole practice of refusing to issue visitor's visas to those with controversial views or associations is repugnant, and the practice of quietly invoking national security reasons for this purpose is wrong. Congress passed the McGovern amendment in response to U.S. agreement under the Helsinki Accords to encourage the free flow of people and ideas across national boundaries. The Court of Appeals decision forwards that objective. It is still possible that the lower court, using the new guidelines, will sustain exclusions in these cases, but the process will be both more difficult and more public. Congress can best clarify the situation by amending the law to open the gates wider.