The First Amendment, Visas and Social Media

The First Amendment, Visas and Social Media

In June 2019, the State Department established a new rule requiring everyone applying for a US visa to give the department their social media usernames, phone numbers and email addresses (old and current.)

Is this something that’s good for the safety of our country, or could it snowball into US citizens losing their right to privacy, or being scared to practice the First Amendment?

Social Media Screening

Up until June of 2019, the State Department only screened the social media profiles of people who had traveled from areas with large terrorist organization populations or had some kind of criminal history. About 65,000 out of the 22.4 million people who applied for visas in the US each year were on the receiving end of extra scrutiny.

The visa application now asks ALL applicants for any Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Myspace, and Pinterest profiles they have used in the past five years.

In a statement about the new application process, the department had this to say:

“National security is our top priority when adjudicating visa applications, and every prospective traveler and immigrant to the United States undergoes extensive security screening. We are constantly working to find mechanisms to improve our screening processes to protect U.S. citizens while supporting legitimate travel to the United States.”

Is this something that will make our country safer, or could it lead to the government using American’s social media profiles against them?

The First Amendment

Opponents to the new rule are worried about a couple of problems that could manifest from this new rule.

  • The first concern is that Americans will eventually lose their privacy in total.
  • Secondly, citizens could become afraid to fully express themselves online, which effectively stifles their First Amendment right to free speech.

Some people also argue that the people applying for visas should be covered under the same protections as US citizens. Josh Schiller, a partner with Boies Schiller Flexner, recently said:

“Just because they are not American citizens doesn’t also mean that aliens aren’t also allowed the privileges of the First Amendment as a protection. The Constitution doesn’t necessarily limit the First Amendment.”

Filmmakers from the International Documentary Association and Doc Society have filed a lawsuit against Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf and Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. The organization claims that the new law requiring people to turn over their social media information has had a “significant chilling effect” on how people use social media, particularly when talking about politics.

Pay close attention to this lawsuit. Perhaps we’ll see if any safeguards are put in place to protect our speech online.

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