Today, the Center for Democracy & Technology, Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, Brennan Center for Justice, and 37 other privacy, civil rights, civil liberties, human rights and immigrants’ rights organizations sent a coalition letter to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) expressing our concern with the Department’s social media screening of travelers at ports of entry. Earlier this year, a Palestinian student admitted to Harvard University sought entry on a student visa and was detained by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). CBP questioned him regarding a friend’s social media content which included criticisms of the United States—content he had not engaged with. He was not initially allowed to enter the United States, and it was not clear what role the social media content played in his denial. As we wrote at the time, that line of questioning was wholly inappropriate and unacceptable. We cannot and should not be held responsible for the speech of others. Thankfully for that student, he was ultimately able to return to the United States and join his classmates at Harvard. But we fear that others who lack the support of an academic institution and the attention of the press will not be so lucky. And indeed, due to DHS’s recent proposal to expand the collection of social media identifiers from certain classes of travelers and individuals seeking an immigration benefit—a proposal we opposed—we are concerned that these stories may become more commonplace.
To that end, we seek clarity from DHS and CBP regarding their social media screening policies. We request that DHS disclose the guidance and training materials that are provided to its personnel that are relevant to CBP’s assessments of travelers’ social media activity. And we inquire about the existence of any safeguards adopted by DHS and CBP to preserve the exercise of fundamental rights like free speech and association. We have repeatedly sounded the alarm on the many predictable negative consequences of social media screening. Such screening chills freedom of speech and association, and leaves individuals vulnerable to religious, racial, ideological, and other forms of discrimination, vulnerable to pre-textual negative decisions, and vulnerable to negative mistaken inferences. If DHS decides to continue to review traveler social media activity, the Department has an obligation to take steps to mitigate these predictable harms. We have begun to think through what some of these steps might be. We hope the Department will be forthcoming with the information we seek and provide the needed assurance to travelers and immigrants that their rights will be respected.