The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University today filed a lawsuit seeking the release of documents concerning the government’s claimed authority to exclude or remove non-citizens from the United States based on their speech, beliefs, and associations. The suit also seeks records relating to new screening policies focused on expressive and associational activity. The Department of Homeland Security recently indicated that it intends to maintain records of the social media accounts of immigrants, including naturalized U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, beginning on October 18.

“Neither border officials nor consular officers should be conducting ideological screening tests,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute. “The routine collection and long-term retention of social media posts, search histories, and other information relating to expressive and associational activity raises serious First Amendment concerns.”

"The government’s new vetting policies threaten to chill free speech to the detriment of U.S. residents and non-residents alike."  

Shortly after his inauguration, the president issued an executive order directing agency heads to develop a program of “extreme vetting” of immigrants, refugees, and visitors to the United States, and in May the State Department adopted a questionnaire requesting that certain visa applicants  disclose their social media handles. The Knight Institute filed its FOIA request on August 7 seeking records relating to the government’s consideration of individuals’ speech, beliefs, or associations when making immigration decisions, and any existing or proposed policies relating to the removal or exclusion of non-citizens on those grounds.

“People around the world use social media to express their beliefs, associate with others who share their beliefs, and debate those who don’t,” said Carrie DeCell, staff attorney at the Knight Institute. “The government’s new vetting policies threaten to chill free speech to the detriment of U.S. residents and non-residents alike.”

Thus far, the government has released only a single document—one already posted on a public website—in response to the Knight Institute’s FOIA request. The Institute’s suit seeks an order requiring various government agencies to process the request and disclose responsive records.

Download the complaint and the August 7 FOIA request.

About the Knight Institute

The Knight First Amendment Institute is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization established by Columbia University and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to defend the freedoms of speech and press in the digital age through strategic litigation, research, and public education.