Filmmakers Sue Feds Over Social Media Screening of Visa Applicants

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo - Getty - H 2019
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Documentary filmmakers say rules that require foreign nationals applying for U.S. visas to give the feds their social media handles are chilling free speech.

Doc Society and the International Documentary Association on Thursday sued Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and the Department of Homeland Security's acting secretary Chad Wolf.

The registration requirement demands, with few exceptions, that visa applicants disclose any social media names they have used in the past five years on more than 20 sites including Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest and YouTube. The filmmakers claim the rules — which affect more than 14 million people a year, according to the complaint — deter people from speaking freely on social media for fear of retribution.

"The Registration Requirement is the cornerstone of a farreaching digital surveillance regime that enables the U.S. government to monitor visa applicants’ constitutionally protected speech and associations not just at the time they apply for visas, but even after they enter the United States," states the complaint, which is posted in full below. "With access to visa applicants’ social media identifiers, the government can develop a detailed picture of their political and religious views; map their professional, political, and other networks; and closely track their speech and associations in real time."

Doc Society and IDA are based in the U.S. but regularly work with foreign filmmakers, including by inviting them to the states to screen their work or attend events.

"Many of Plaintiffs’ members and partners use social media to show their work; draw attention to human rights abuses; connect with other filmmakers, artists, and advocates; and engage with the same social and political issues that they address in their films," states the complaint. "Plaintiffs’ members and partners who anticipate applying for U.S. visas must consider the risk that a U.S. official will misinterpret their speech on social media, impute others’ speech to them, or subject them to additional scrutiny or delayed processing because of the views they or their contacts have expressed."

The groups argue that the risks are even higher for people who use pseudonyms on social media and are forced to give up their online anonymity because they're faced with the possibility that their user names could be disclosed to foreign governments, leaked inadvertently or hacked.

"In recent months, authoritarian and other rights-abusing regimes, including some U.S. allies, have used information gleaned from social media to identify, locate, and detain human rights advocates, journalists, and political dissidents — and even, in some instances, to have them killed," the complaint asserts.

The filmmakers argue the registration requirement is "arbitrary and capricious" and has deterred some of its members and partners from applying for visas. They also argue that the DHS inspector general in February 2017 reported that pilot programs testing the efficacy of social media screening showed such methods were inadequate in identifying national security threats.

The filmmakers are asking the court to declare that the policies are unlawful and to enjoin the government from enforcing them. Their legal team includes attorneys from New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, Columbia University's Knight First Amendment Institute and Simpson Thatcher & Bartlett.

A State Department spokesperson tells THR the department does not comment on pending litigation. DHS has not yet responded to a request for comment.