It was the morning after the last presidential debate and social media chatter was focused on the “mute button” and the prowess of Kristen Welker, the moderator.
The National Day of Action Against the Criminalization and Censorship of Campus Speech organized by the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) began successfully with the first scheduled event of the day at the University of Massachusetts — Boston. The topic was: We Will not Be Silenced: The Repression of Academic Freedom and Resistance, from Leila Khaled to UMass Boston.
Professor Heike Schotten (Political Science/USACBI), the moderator of the webinar, evaded the Zoom mute button applied to the University of Hawa’ii the day before and to New York University (NYU) later that day. (An event at the University of Leeds was also censored, but nine of the events went forward in full, despite multiple threats of censorship.)
“Allowing Zoom to override this bedrock principle, at the behest of organized, politically motivated groups, is a grave error for any university administration to make, and it should not escape censure from faculty and students.” — NYU-AAUP
In the following video clip titled NYU Webinar — We Will Not Be Silenced, which he streamed on YouTube, Professor Andrew Ross and his panelists Nerdeen Kiswani (CUNY/Within our Lifetime), Fred Moten (NYU) and Radhika Sainath (Palestine Legal) talk about the intervention by Zoom and of “the endangered expression of Palestinian speech and … the prohibition against criticism of any Israeli policy since 1948 and the conflation of that criticism with the charge of antisemitism.” He urges the New York University administration to take action against Zoom.
At the beginning of the webinar, Professor Ross plays a brief compilation of Leila Khaled’s statements (min 6:00) about Palestinian resistance put together by USACBI “to ensure that her voice and image is present.” Khaled is undergoing medical treatment and was unable to provide a voice message for the occasion.
The statement from the NYU-AAUP on the Zoom Censorship of the NYU webinar reads as follows:
Statement from the NYU-AAUP Executive Committee (10/23/2020)
Today, Zoom unilaterally shut down a webinar hosted by the NYU chapter of the AAUP, and co-sponsored by several NYU departments and institutes. The webinar was scheduled to discuss the censorship, by Zoom and other big tech platforms, of an open classroom session last month at SFSU, featuring the Palestinian rights advocate Leila Khaled.
Of course, we recognize that it is an act of sick comedy to censor an event about censorship, but it raises serious questions about the capacity of a corporate, third-party vendor to decide what is acceptable academic speech and what is not.
The shutdown of a campus event is a clear violation of the principle of academic freedom that universities are obliged to observe. Allowing Zoom to override this bedrock principle, at the behest of organized, politically motivated groups, is a grave error for any university administration to make, and it should not escape censure from faculty and students.
The NYU administration has told us they knew nothing about Zoom’s decision, and that they have taken up the issue with the company’s representatives. We urge the administration to issue a strong statement denouncing this act, and to revisit the terms of its contract with Zoom.
If Zoom will not walk back its policy of canceling webinars featuring Palestinian speech and advocacy, college presidents should break their agreements with the company.
The AAUP chapter is committed to organizing an event for the NYU community to discuss this appalling breach of academic norms.
“Israel lobby organizations have made frivolous threats based on a false claim that it would constitute criminal activity to host Ms. Khaled for an academic discussion.” — Palestine Legal
Following are two letters that shed further light on the issue of Zoom’s censorship of Palestine speech in reference to Leila Khaled. The first is one sent by a Zoom representative to the administration of the Claremont Colleges vis-a-vis the event (We Will Not Be Silenced: Resisting the Censorship of Leila Khaled, Palestinian Voices…and the Online College Classroom) that was later, nevertheless, successfully broadcast on the platform:
Dear Mr. Thompson:
Zoom is committed to supporting the open exchange of ideas and conversations. There are, however, limitations contained in our Terms of Service, including those related to U.S. sanctions and anti-terrorism laws, as well as our Community Standards, which prohibit the glorification of violence.
Zoom has been notified that the Claremont Colleges have planned an event, “We Will Not Be Silenced: Resisting the Censorship of Leila Khaled, Palestinian Voices…and the Online College Classroom”, on October 23, 2020. This event is included on a list of events that feature Leila Khaled, who is affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is a designated foreign terrorist organization.
In light of this affiliation, and Ms. Khaled’s recent reported glorification of violence during her appearance at a San Francisco State University event, we have determined that events explicitly promoting Khaled’s appearance are in violation of Zoom’s Terms of Service and Community Standards, and therefore Zoom may not be used to host them.
While, as stated above, your event is on this list, because it does not state explicitly that Ms. Khaled will join, we are currently allowing the event to proceed on our platform. However, if we learn that Ms. Khaled will join the event, we will take actions, potentially including, but not limited to, suspension or termination of violating meetings or users.
Pursuant to Zoom’s Terms of Service, users are solely responsible for their and their end users’ use of Zoom services, and users agree that they will not use — and will not permit their end users to use — Zoom services in any manner that violates the law, including sanctions and anti-terrorism laws. Our Terms of Service also require the user to represent and warrant that they and its end users are not designated on the U.S. Government prohibited party lists.
Senior Corporate Counsel,
Trust & Safety and Law Enforcement Team Leader,
Zoom Video Communications
The second letter is one that Palestine Legal, together with ten other civil rights groups, sent to university administrators vis-a-vis the event Zoom shut down at University of Hawai’i: “Exactly a month after censoring a Palestine webinar at San Francisco State, Zoom has censored two other campus Palestine events — this time at the University of Hawai’i-Manoa (UHM) and at New York University (NYU).”
October 22, 2020
Re: Unconstitutional Censorship of October 23rd Event at University of Hawai‘i Manoa
Dear President Lassner:
We write to express our serious concerns with respect to Zoom’s cancellation of the event “We Will Not Be Silenced: The Case of Khaled and Solidarity from Hawai‘i to Palestine,” scheduled to take place tomorrow, October 23, at the University of Hawai‘i Manoa (UHM). Such censorship, which UHM is party to, violates the First Amendment and academic freedom rights of the professors, groups, and departments who organized and are co-hosting the event. Accordingly, we demand that you immediately remedy this situation by finding an alternative platform as the law and your educational mission require you to do.
In a letter from Zoom to UHM, Zoom stated that it would cancel the October 23 event because of Ms. Khaled’s “recently reported glorification of violence” during an event at another school, San Francisco State University, on September 23. Ms. Khaled never spoke at this event because Zoom canceled it before it took place and YouTube blocked the event before Ms. Khaled could speak. Zoom’s vague claims that the October 23 event would violate the law because of Ms. Khaled’s “affiliation or membership in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine” are similarly baseless.
Israel lobby organizations have made frivolous threats based on a false claim that it would constitute criminal activity to host Ms. Khaled for an academic discussion. Lobby groups claimed that it would constitute “material support for terrorism” to host Ms. Khaled as a speaker because she has been publicly affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a group that the U.S. has designated as a terrorist organization, and because Ms. Khaled, now 76, participated in two plane hijackings fifty years ago, as part of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation.
The claim that professors in the U.S. cannot host Ms. Khaled to speak has no basis in law or fact. Ms. Khaled was not compensated for the events, she did not plan to represent the PFLP at either event, and fundamentally, the exchange of ideas in a university setting is constitutionally protected free speech. Again, these events are academic discussions: the September 23 class event was to examine critical narratives of resistance, gender and sexual justice, and the October 23 webinar’s focus is on liberation, censorship and academic freedom.
To extend counterterrorism laws to pure speech and academic discourse would severely undermine all of our First Amendment rights to speech and association.
For you to give any credence to such an unconstitutional argument exposes your own professors engaged in scholarship and critical discussions to special risk, not to mention severely poisons the climate of academic freedom at UHM.
If Zoom’s contract allows the company to censor University events, the University has engaged in an unconstitutional abdication of its responsibility to the organizers of the event, its faculty and student body.
As you well know, decades of First Amendment doctrine protect the free exchange of ideas at public universities, including controversial speakers. The University of Hawai‘i is obligated under the First Amendment and under multiple contractual commitments to protect campus free speech and academic freedom.
The University has held Zoom out as the “University of Hawaii’s systemwide conferencing and webinar provider,” and has stated that Zoom is available to “live stream lectures or special guests to a large audience using interactive webinar features.”1 UHM has described Zoom as a “virtual lecture hall or auditorium.”2
Having established such a forum, UHM must abide by its First Amendment responsibility to provide content-neutral and viewpoint-neutral access. As the Supreme Court has recognized, when a public entity engages in state action with a private company, the public entity can incorporate compliance with its constitutional responsibilities into its contract and cannot “effectively abdicate its responsibilities by either ignoring them or by merely failing to discharge them whatever the motive may be. It is of no consolation to an individual denied the equal protection of the laws that it was done in good faith.”3
As a public university system educating nearly 50,000 students, UHM has financial leverage in its dealings with Zoom. Yet, UHM administrators have asserted that the University is unwilling to risk its license over this event. By continuing to contract with Zoom without ensuring that the “We Will Not Be Silenced: The Case of Khaled and Solidarity from Hawai‘i to Palestine” event will be allowed to go forward, you have jeopardized UHM’s mission to allow the free exchange of ideas — even those that challenge the status quo. UHM is ratifying Zoom’s censorship and creating a system of unequal access, not only in violation of the law and the University’s contractual guarantees of academic freedom, but also of the University’s own educational mission.
If the University is unable to ensure that Zoom will allow the event to go forward, the University must arrange for an adequate alternative venue with the same features, and it must cancel or amend its contract with Zoom to ensure that UHM is able to live up to its constitutional and educational responsibilities. It is vital that you arrange for a Zoom platform or an alternative immediately so that organizers have time to prepare and notify participants and those who signed up for the webinar.
We look forward to your immediate reply.
1 Information Technology Services, Zoom Transition,
https://www.hawaii.edu/its/videoconferencing/zoomtransition/ (last accessed Oct. 21, 2020).
2 Information Technology Services, Zoom Webinar Service, https://www.hawaii.edu/its/videoconferencing/webinar/ (last accessed Oct. 21, 2020).
3 Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority, 365 U.S. 715 (1961).
On behalf of:
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)
Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus
Center for Constitutional Rights
Civil Liberties Defense Center
Climate Defense Project
Defending Rights and Dissent
National Lawyers Guild International Committee
Partnership for Civil Justice Fund
Water Protector Legal Collective
Palestine Legal above flags Zoom’s behavior as “unconstitutional.” But big tech companies are moving to protect themselves legally by adding language to their terms of service, as Facebook does below:
Update to Our Terms
Effective October 1, 2020, section 3.2 of our Terms of Service will be updated to include: “We also can remove or restrict access to your content, services or information if we determine that doing so is reasonably necessary to avoid or mitigate adverse legal or regulatory impacts to Facebook.”
A thorough account of the twists and turns of the Day of Action on October 23rd is posted on the USACBI website: We Will Not Be Silenced: Continuing the struggle against corporate and university censorship of Palestine — report and videos. The report concludes with the following rallying cry:
Let us be clear: this does not end with one day of webinars, especially as our colleagues continue to face repression, discrimination, censorship and renewed attacks from Zionist organizations, Big Tech corporations and complicit university administrations. Even if the plug is being pulled by huge tech corporations; universities are outsourcing their responsibilities and obligations to protect academic freedom to Silicon Valley.
This is an attempt to silence and erase the Palestinian narrative and Palestinian liberation struggle. We invite all who stand for justice in Palestine to join us in campaigning against the criminalization and censorship of Palestinian speech on campus, and in building the academic boycott of Israel, including by:
Issuing organizational statements from AAUP chapters, student and faculty groups, social justice organizations and other groups concerned about justice in Palestine — confronting the original attacks on Profs. Abdulhadi and Kinukawa at SFSU and the ongoing Big Tech silencing targeting the Palestinian narrative at the University of Hawai’i, NYU and elsewhere;
Organizing more of these events! USACBI will be happy to provide you with video material as well as a curriculum and additional resources to help you plan your event and publicize it.
Campaigning for the academic boycott of Israel. Endorse the USACBI call at this link.
Contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org to strategize together to build our activities and networks to fight repression and struggle for justice in Palestine. WE WILL NOT BE SILENCED.
Rima Najjar is a Palestinian whose father’s side of the family comes from the forcibly depopulated village of Lifta on the western outskirts of Jerusalem and whose mother’s side of the family is from Ijzim, south of Haifa. She is an activist, researcher and retired professor of English literature, Al-Quds University, occupied West Bank.