Incoming Harvard Freshman Denied Visa Based on Friends’ Social Media Posts

Aug 27, 2019
11:05 AM

Johnston Gate in Harvard Yard (Photo by Daderot/Public Domain)

The following media released was shared by PEN America on Tuesday:

Immigration officers canceled an incoming Harvard freshman’s U.S. visa and forced him to leave the country Friday evening. The Harvard Crimson reports Ismail B. Ajjawi, a 17-year-old Palestinian student from Lebanon, was turned away at the Boston airport because of posts on his friend’s social media feeds.

Summer Lopez, senior director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America, issued the following response:

“This is a move so perverse, so grotesque as to defy explanation. Preventing people from entering the country because their friends critiqued the U.S. on social media shows an astounding disregard for the principle of free speech. The idea that Ajjawi should be prevented from taking his place at Harvard because of his own political speech would be alarming; that he should be denied this opportunity based on the speech of others is downright lawless.

“In June, when the State Department announced its new ‘extreme vetting’ policy requiring visa applicants to share their social media and email account information, we warned that it would have severe consequences. This case demonstrates all too well the damage these ill-conceived policies can do. Ajjawi defended himself to immigration officials by insisting he had never made a political comment on social media. That should not be the price of entrance to the U.S., let alone that one’s friends should have to censor themselves as well.

“This despicable action also flies in the face of the purpose of international educational exchange, which is to open the mind and expand one’s understanding of the world. Instead, Ajjawi has been shown only the U.S.’s failure to uphold the very values it purports to stand for.”

PEN America has decried efforts by the U.S. government to review social media and email accounts of visa applicants as failing to have any clear security benefit and instead curtailing free expression.


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.