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Documentary groups challenge Trump administration’s vetting of immigrants’ social media

Two documentary groups this week challenged the Trump administration’s practice of vetting immigrants’ social media accounts when they apply for visas.

Doc Society and the International Documentary Association, the two nonprofits, teamed up to file a lawsuit against Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf.

The complaint argues that social media vetting has unfairly impacted their foreign collaborators and that filmmakers and activists in other countries are either censoring themselves on social media or declining to apply for visas they would have normally sought.

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“We regularly work with filmmakers for whom the ability to maintain anonymity online can be a matter of life and death,” Jess Search, director of Doc Society, said in a statement.

“As an organization committed to filmmaker safety, we believe the registration requirement is 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,” Search added. 

Twitter also jumped into the fray to offer support for the lawsuit, suggesting the social media vetting policy inhibits people’s ability to speak anonymously without having to worry about retaliation.

The suit challenges the practice on the grounds that the State Department does not have the authority to monitor immigrants’ social media accounts and that the policy is unconstitutional since it is “not sufficiently tailored to any legitimate government interest.” 

The Obama administration in 2015 first tried to assess the effectiveness of screening visa applicants’ social media accounts, but the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general said in February 2017 after President Trump was inaugurated that no evidence had surfaced that such a practice had benefits for U.S. national security. Trump, though, mandated his officials to implement the vetting process, which officially took effect in May.

The decision expanded the number of visa applicants who had their social media accounts monitored. Originally, roughly 65,000 visa applicants who spent time in areas where terrorist groups were present had their online accounts screened, but the documentary groups say an estimated 14.7 million visa applicants are now impacted by the policy.

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