Filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi in an interview from 2016 (screenshot by Dan Schindel/Hyperallergic via YouTube)

On December 5, the Knight First Amendment Institute, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett filed a lawsuit against the US State Department and the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of the International Documentary Association (IDA) and the Doc Society. The suit challenges policies instituted by the State Department earlier this year which require that visa applicants disclose all of their social media profiles during the vetting process, including pseudonymous profiles. The Los Angeles-based IDA and the Brooklyn-based Doc Society are both nonprofits which represent international collectives of documentary filmmakers, and the suit asserts that these restrictions pose a risk to members’ privacy and safety. This is the first major legal challenge the Trump administration has faced on this issue.

The policy, which took effect in May, covers around 14 million visa applicants annually. It requires that they register any social media profiles they’ve used within the past five years on any of 20 specified platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even defunct networks such as Google+. As the suit complaint points out, such information is not only circulated within the government, but could also be shared with foreign governments. The Knight Institute cites the case of Burmese documentarian Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, who this year was arrested and sentenced to hard labor for criticizing the Myanmar military in a Facebook post, as precedent for the need to protect pseudonymity on social media.

IDA Director Simon Kilmurry writes in an editorial for the Los Angeles Times that “Social media is indispensable to many foreign documentary filmmakers. It is the way they connect with the subjects of their films, research the stories they are telling, and share their work with global audiences. But the Trump administration’s new visa application requirements are now leaving these filmmakers with little choice but to censor their online speech … Social media screening has already deterred some of our members from applying for visas, preventing them from participating in recent US film festivals and limiting their ability to tell their stories to US audiences.”

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

In another editorial, Carrie DeCell and Harsha Panduranga, lawyers for the IDA and Doc Society, claim that the requirements induce a “chilling” effect that’s particularly pronounced for anyone operating under a pseudonym on social media. They state, furthermore, that surrendering their secret handles, artists risk their information falling into the hands of hackers, governments which abuse rights, or others.

Christoper Finan of the National Coalition Against Censorship provided this statement for Hyperallergic: “American citizens would not stand for the government monitoring their social media accounts, and no foreign visitors should be subjected to it either. It would inevitably make them think twice before speaking freely for fear that something they might say — especially anything critical of our government — might bar them from visiting the US. This is a particular concern for artists, writers, and cultural producers, who rely on free expression protections to create their work, and on whom we rely to challenge, question and reflect the world as it is.”

The full complaint filed for Doc Society v. Pompeo is available to read online from the Knight Institute.





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