Filmmakers Sue Over Visa Social Media Disclosure Requirement

(AP Photo/Amr Alfiky)

(CN) – Two documentary film organizations filed a federal lawsuit Thursday in Washington over the registration requirement that forces 14.7 million visa applicants to disclose their social media aliases.

One documentary filmmaker used online anonymity to investigate Nazi culture. But if they want to obtain or renew a U.S. visa, these individuals are required to disclose their identities to the government.

“The stories they share around the world are global, we live in an international society and films are transnational,” said Simon Kilmurry, the executive director of the International Documentary Association, in an interview. Originally from the United Kingdom, Kilmurry produced the award-winning “POV” series on PBS.

One project the International Documentary Association is sponsoring is set in Zimbabwe, featuring a Danish director, and produced in the U.S. The Los Angeles-based organization is joined by the Doc Society, an organization with offices in Brooklyn and London, in the lawsuit against the State Department and Department of Homeland Security.

“In our increasingly global world, the meaningful exchange of ideas and perspectives should be celebrated, not stifled,” Kilmurry added.

Form DS-260 was implemented on May 31, 2019. The U.S. government requires handle disclosure for all visa applicants who used most social media sites as well as the Chinese, Russian, Belgian and Latvian platforms in the last five years.

Since the rule took effect, the lawsuit created a chilling effect throughout the documentary film community, including one Minnesota-based member who reviewed and censored three years of social media history before applying for a visa renewal.

Others have changed the way they interact on social media or quit platforms altogether, according to the lawsuit.

“Some visa 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,” the complaint states.

The fear of prosecution or retaliation for statements made on social media is very real. The lawsuit cites Burmese filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi who was sentenced to hard labor for posting criticism against the government on Facebook and Kurdish journalist Rawin Sterks, who was charged with creating terrorist propaganda.

“We’ve seen social media used as a tool of surveillance,” Kilmurry said. “Journalists and filmmakers living in oppressive regimes have to hide or risk being exposed, but the U.S. has the First Amendment.”

Besides using social media history to verify applicant identities, the federal government retains the information indefinitely and makes no guarantee that it will not be “disseminated, in some circumstances, to other governments.”
The registration requirement of social media activity is part of President Donald Trump’s “extreme vetting program” aimed to reduce immigration to the U.S. But many remain skeptical as to the effectiveness of using social media screening on visa applications, including thousands of public comments which were submitted against the measure.

The plaintiffs ask the court to declare the registration requirement in violation of both the Administrative Procedure Act and the First Amendment. The filmmakers are represented by attorneys at the NYU School of Law Brennan Center for Justice and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

“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,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight Institute in a statement. “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.”

The lawsuit names both Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and acting secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf as defendants. Both of their respective departments declined to comment on pending litigation.

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