This article was originally published by the University of California’s National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement.
Disruptions. Interruptions. Postponed tests. A deluge of racist, sexist, or pornographic content.
These are the hallmarks of so-called “Zoombombing,” which has swept across the landscape of virtual higher education in recent weeks. Perpetrators have interrupted routine academic engagements, including classes, conferences, and meetings, by sharing screens with offensive content, swarming chat windows, and flooding audio channels with insults. Some have canceled online sessions in response, while others have moved to close off open discussions to head off the attacks.
Zoomboming has its antecedent in abusive online tactics that have metastasized in recent years, with individuals subjected to sexual harassment, doxing, or having their emails flooded with gruesome imagery and threats. There can be little denying that professors, administrators, and students have been favorite targets for such invective. Women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community have been targeted disproportionately.
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But at many universities, online harassment has largely been perceived as an attack against individuals, rather than an attack against the academy or the values it represents. As a result, this problem has not been met with the same urgency or outcry as other free speech issues in higher education, like heckling of invited speakers, or professors’ academic freedom. Although many people have felt intimidated, threatened–or silenced–because of online abuse, we have yet to see a broad mobilization in response, or the development of standardized policies, protocols, or forms of support.
In higher education, our commitment to liberal, democratic values means standing up for the rights of all to speak without fear of harassment or retribution. It necessitates taking seriously any threats that impair the free flow of discourse. Every meeting cancelled or class postponed risks undermining the equal rights of all to receive, share, and impart information. If recent trends persist, an institution committed to diversity risks having silenced the voices from historically marginalized communities that it has long sought to include.
Because the virtual shift has constrained our channels for communication, it has made more people susceptible to these attacks, and made protecting these channels more urgent. But growing recognition of this problem should not be squandered. If one unintended effect of Zoombombing is better support for victims, or a robust effort to amplify these silenced voices, then this will be a campaign of hate and abuse that ultimately backfires. Let’s hope higher education is up to the task.
Jonathan Friedman is director of PEN America’s campus free speech program and a 2019–2020 fellow at the National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement at the University of California. Follow him @jzfriedman.