Documentary Filmmakers Challenge State Department, Homeland Security Visa Rules

Associated Press

Two organizations representing documentary filmmakers are challenging new State Department “extreme vetting” rules that require visa applicants to disclose all social media handles they have used in the past five years.

“We feel these new policies infringe upon foreign filmmakers’ freedom of expression, and they also interfere with Americans’ ability to engage with a diverse set of thinkers and creators from around the world,” the International Documentary Association said in a statement.

The IDA and the Doc Society filed the lawsuit this week, with support from the Knight First Amendment Institute and the Brennan Center for Justice. They name as defendants Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf.

The lawsuit (read it here) claims that the registration requirement is “the cornerstone of a far-reaching 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.”

Their lawsuit argues that because of the requirement, applicants “who would otherwise use social media to speak to others, and to share their views about personal or political topics, refrain from doing so or publicly share less than they otherwise would.” They also argue that the requirements forces users to give up anonymous social media handles, as is “effectively conditions their eligibility for U.S. visas on their readiness to surrender their online anonymity.”

“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 lawsuit states. The lawsuit cites examples of documentary filmmakers who use social media handles to comment on the Trump administration, Supreme Court nominees, the Syria crisis and other topics.
The lawsuit argues that there is a risk that “U.S. officials will misinterpret visa applicants’ social media activity.”
“In light of this risk, a Doc Society partner who recently applied for a J1 visa under the new Registration Requirement reviewed two years’ worth of Twitter posts, deleting posts that were critical of U.S. policy and might be misconstrued by U.S. officials. Other filmmakers have also stopped posting or commenting on any content about American politics or President Trump’s administration for the same reason.”
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Washington, seeks an injunction to halt the enforcement of the social media requirement.
The State Department and DHS have yet to respond to the lawsuit.

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