Two of the country’s largest online communities backed a legal challenge to the Trump administration’s rule requiring nearly all U.S. visa applicants to register all of their social media handles and usernames with the federal government, claiming that the requirement violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
In an amicus brief submitted Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Twitter, Reddit and the Internet Association threw their support behind a lawsuit filed against the U.S. State Department by the Knight First Amendment Institute, the Brennan Center for Justice, and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP on behalf of Doc Society and International Documentary Association, two documentary film organizations.
The rule at the center of the controversy, which went into effect last year compels, more than 14 million annual U.S. visa applicants to disclose all social media handles that they’ve used on any of 20 platforms – including Twitter and Reddit — in the last five years.
According to the platforms, depriving users of anonymity on these sites the government would effectively be chilling their constitutionally protected right to free speech.
“For the many foreign nationals who choose to participate in online speech without revealing their identity—by, for example, using a pseudonym—the Registration Requirement requires them to surrender their anonymity in order to travel to the United States. And in doing so, the requirement violates the First Amendment rights to speak anonymously and associate privately,” the brief stated. “Twitter and Reddit vigorously guard the right to speak anonymously for people on their platforms, and anonymous individuals correspondingly communicate on these platforms with the expectation that their identities will not be revealed without a specific showing of compelling need. That expectation allows the free exchange of ideas to flourish on these platforms.”
The brief also backs the legal challenge to the rule based on the federal government’s right to retain the collected information indefinitely, and disseminate it broadly to amongst federal agencies, and in some cases, disclose it to foreign governments.
“As the government fully acknowledges, that information is not only used to make determinations about applicants’ visa eligibility, but is also shared broadly to other federal-government agencies to aid them in reaching decisions on deportation and the denial of immigration benefits,” the brief stated. “The government also acknowledges that the information can be disclosed to foreign governments under certain circumstances, raising the specter that oppressive or authoritarian regimes could learn the identities of and seek retribution against those who would use social media to critique them.”
In a statement, Twitter’s Vice President of Public Policy and Philanthropy Jessica Herrera-Flanigan said that “Defending and respecting the voices of the people who use our service is one of our core values at Twitter. This value is a two-part commitment to freedom of expression and privacy. We believe the government’s policy requiring visa applicants to disclose their social media handles infringes both of those rights and we are proud to lend our support on these critical legal issues.”
The State Department in April filed a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed.
Read the full amicus brief below.
The brief was filed on the same day President Donald Trump issued a social media-related executive order that, according to at least one leading First Amendment expert, threatens free speech. That executive order came the day after Twitter fact-checked the president for the first time.
[image via LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images]
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