Coalition concerned over visa denials’ effect on academic freedom, free speech

November 19, 2019

FIRE has joined a coalition of 40 civil rights and civil liberties groups, including the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Center for Democracy & Technology, and the ACLU, to express concerns about the Department of Homeland Security’s use of social media as a basis to deny visas to travelers, including international students.

In a letter to Chad Wolf, DHS’s acting secretary, the coalition requests the department release its training materials on social media vetting and provide answers on how social media posts can affect an individual’s visa. The groups cite the troubling case of Ismail Ajjawi, a Palestinian student from Lebanon who was initially refused entry to the United States ahead of classes at Harvard — reportedly because of posts his friends made to social media.

The letter also addresses FIRE’s primary concern about the DHS practice: that it allows border officials to decide which views may not be allowed onto our nation’s campuses. 

If DHS policy authorizes procedures along the lines of what some students at the border have faced, then visiting scholars, artists, journalists, and other travelers may begin to think twice before posting on social media out of concern that their messages may be viewed as critical of American policies and thus subject them to some form of reprisal from the U.S. government. These practices can run the risk of harming academic freedom by allowing CBP and DHS to effectively decide which foreign academics’ views are not permitted at U.S. campuses. Immigrants and visitors to the U.S. may very well disconnect from social media or even the Internet altogether. This would cut off some from their online networks while making it harder for others to access a wide range of perspectives, significantly burdening freedom of expression and association.

Moreover, by implementing this practice for those seeking entry to the United States, DHS is clearing the way for other countries to exclude Americans based on what their friends and even acquaintances say online. 

Read the full letter to learn more about the coalition’s request for transparency from the Department of Homeland Security. 

FIRE thanks the Center for Democracy & Technology, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and the Brennan Center for Justice for taking the lead on this important issue.