Documentary Filmmakers Sue State Dept. for Social Media Registration Requirement

On December 5, plaintiffs DOC Society and International Documentary Association (IDA) filed a complaint against defendants Michael R. Pompeo and Chad F. Wolf, Secretary of State and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, respectively (DOC Society and International Documentary Association v. Michael R. Pompeo and Chad F. Wolf 1:19-cv-03632) for the social media registration requirement in United States visa applications. The complaint was filed in the District Court for the District of Columbia. Plaintiffs are represented by Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

The lawsuit challenges State Department rules that require almost all people applying for American visas to register their social media accounts with the government. Therefore, approximately 14.7 million applicants have been required to give their account names, including aliases for about 20 different platforms, over the last five years. This information is disseminated to other departments within the American government and sometimes to foreign governments. The complaint alleged that this 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.” Further, it claimed the government has access to a “live database of their personal, creative, and political activities online.” Thus, the government has access to peoples’ beliefs and ideas and the complaint stated that this could alter people’s behavior on social media. The complaint alleged that the U.S. government has violated people’s rights and freedoms, including free speech. “The Registration Requirement effectively conditions their eligibility for U.S. visas on their readiness to surrender their online anonymity.”

The plaintiffs alleged that the requirement violates their rights and the rights of their members and partners. These documentary film organizations often employ individuals from outside the United States, and social media is used to show their work, which can include controversial topics and human rights issues, as well as social and political issues. The complaint stated that the registration requirement will hinder their use of social media for promotion and engagement purposes, especially for political purposes. DOC and IDA believe that members or partners could face negative action against them in response to social media content. They stated those “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 complaint stated this fear has caused users to filter their views or to use the platforms less.

The Immigration and Nationality Act requires both immigrant and nonimmigrant visa applicants to provide certain information to establish identity and eligibility for a visa. Social media screening is used to identify national security threats. The complaint alleged that the DHS has failed to prove that social media screenings are effective for identifying these threats.

The complaint stated the registration requirement is in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act by exceeding the Secretary of State’s power given in the Immigration and Nationality Act. It also stated it violates the First Amendment. DOC and IDA seek for the requirement to be deemed unlawful and to remove the registration requirement.