Censorship at the Border Threatens Free Speech Everywhere

Jameel Jaffer
April 17, 2017

Defending one’s political and religious beliefs to government officials is an obligation we associate with life in authoritarian regimes, not open societies.  It’s becoming common, though, for foreign citizens who visit the United States — and even for Americans returning home after travel abroad—to be interrogated about their beliefs by customs and border personnel. These days, those seeking admission to the United States may also be required to surrender their cellphones and laptops, which can supply border agents with a wealth of information about travelers’ associations, communications, and activities online. Border agents use that information to draw conclusions, sound or not, about travelers’ ideological commitments.

Now the Trump administration, under the rubric of “extreme vetting,” is considering taking a further step by mandating that non-citizens disclose their social media handles and passwords and answer questions about ideology as a condition of admission to the country.  The aim is to empower consular and border officials to ensure that would-be visitors to the United States embrace American values, a concept that the Trump administration has not defined.  Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly defended the idea in congressional testimony last week.  “If they don’t cooperate,” he said of aspiring visitors, “they can go back.”

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