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IDA, Doc Society sue U.S. State Dept. over social media registration for visa applicants

Documentary film organizations the International Documentary Association (IDA) and Doc Society have taken issue with the Trump administration’s new rules requiring U.S. visa applicants to register their social media handles ...
December 9, 2019

Documentary film organizations the International Documentary Association (IDA) and Doc Society have taken issue with the Trump administration’s new rules requiring U.S. visa applicants to register their social media handles with the American government.

The non-profit documentary bodies, represented by the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University and the Brennan Center for Justice, have today (Dec. 9) filed the first major lawsuit against the U.S. State Department and the Department of Homeland Security.

The new rules, which took effect in May, require nearly all visa applicants to register all social media handles – including pseudonyms – that they have used over the past five years on any of the 20 listed platforms, including Twitter and Facebook.

The two government entities can “retain the collected information indefinitely, share it broadly among federal agencies, and disclose it, in some circumstances, to foreign governments.”

IDA and Doc Society, however, argue that the requirement deters international filmmakers from applying for travel visas, violates the First Amendment by prohibiting engagement in protected speech, and “burdens the ability of U.S. organizations and audiences to engage with filmmakers from around the world.”

“We regularly work with filmmakers for whom the ability to maintain anonymity online can be a matter of life and death,” said Doc Society director Jess Search in a statement. “As an organization committed to filmmaker safety, we believe the registration requirement is a deeply troubling and oppressive development, forcing filmmakers to choose between free online expression and their own security. The U.S. government should be championing freedom of expression, not taking actions which will inhibit it.”

“Social media screening has already deterred some of our members from applying for visas, preventing them from participating in recent U.S. film festivals and limiting their ability to tell their stories to U.S. audiences,” added Simon Kilmurry, executive director of the International Documentary Association. “In our increasingly global world, the meaningful exchange of ideas and perspectives should be celebrated, not stifled.”

The 35-page complaint seeks to halt the enforcement of both the registration requirement and related retention and dissemination policies, arguing that the requirements are unlawful and violate the Administrative Procedure Act as the social media registration requirement is unnecessary to establishing visa applicants’ identity or visa eligibility.

“The registration requirement is the linchpin of a far-reaching and unconstitutional surveillance regime that permits the government to monitor the online activities of millions of visa applicants, and to continue monitoring them even after they’ve entered the United States,” noted Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight Institute. “The government simply has no legitimate interest in collecting this kind of sensitive information on this immense scale, and the First Amendment doesn’t permit it to do so.”

“Even the government’s own tests haven’t produced any evidence that social media screening works to reliably identify fraud or national security threats,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program. “And that isn’t surprising – officials are looking at posts in thousands of languages, and are trying to interpret jokes, slang, and sarcasm in digital spaces where people communicate differently than they would in real life.”

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