Pre-COVID-19, colleges and universities decided which speakers were too controversial to visit their campuses. But this week’s events at San Francisco State University demonstrate how tech companies increasingly are the arbiters of who’s fit to address students.
Here’s what happened: two professors, Rabab Abdulhadi, professor of Arab and Muslim ethnicities and diasporas studies at San Francisco State, and Tomomi Kinukawa, lecturer in women's and gender studies, organized a virtual roundtable discussion on Palestinian rights called “Whose Narratives? Gender, Justice and Resistance: A Conversation with Leila Khaled.”
A digital flier for the event described Khaled as a “Palestinian feminist, militant and leader.” What it didn’t say was that Khaled was one of two terrorists who hijacked TWA flight 840 from Italy to Israel in 1969, in affiliation with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. No one was killed in the incident, but two hostages were held for months. Khaled was released without charges in a prisoner exchange, and she went on to unsuccessfully attempt to hijack a second international flight in 1970. She was again released in a hostage exchange.
Khaled, now a resident of Jordan, has lived a quieter life since then. But she continues to speak out on Arab-Israeli relations and against the premise of a peace process. Some accuse her of advocating violence against Israel.
“Ι am afraid I am a freedom fighter, whatever that means or whatever the media that is controlled by Zionism and the imperialists say,” Khaled told Euronews in 2017. Asked about her tactics in that fight, she said, “When you defend humanity, you use all the means at your disposal. Some use words, some use arms and some use politics. Some use negotiations. I chose arms and I believe that taking up arms is one of the main tools to solve this conflict in the interest of the oppressed and not the oppressors.”
For obvious reasons, Khaled remains controversial: she was banned from entering several countries, including Italy, in 2017, on the grounds that she is a member of terrorist organization. Khaled remains a member of the Popular Front militant group, which the U.S., among other countries, has designated a terrorist organization.
News of Khaled’s virtual invitation to San Francisco State spread fast, and the university faced intense pressure to cancel the event.
“We recognize that it is not always easy to know whether a faculty member intends to educate or politically indoctrinate students,” reads a letter to the university from 86 organizations, including the AMCHA Initiative, a watchdog group against anti-Semitism. “However, sometimes it is crystal clear, as in the case of [Abdulhadi], who organized this event and specifically invited Leila Khaled, a leader of a U.S. State Department-designated terrorist organization, who continues to make public statements in support of armed violence against Israel.”
Zoom also faced pressure to refuse to stream the roundtable. San Francisco State -- which supported Abdulhadi and Khaled’s right to speak -- offered Zoom assurances that Khaled was not being compensated for her talk or was in any way representing the Popular Front. Yet a day before the planned event, on Tuesday, Zoom said it could not facilitate the roundtable.
Brendan Carr, commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, praised Zoom's decision, as did others, saying on Twitter, "Don't need to hear both sides."
Organizers decided to stream the event on YouTube instead. But it, too, faced pressures to censor the event. About 20 minutes into the broadcast, it cut the feed. The conversation was effectively over.
Facebook also removed promotional material about the event from its pages.
John K. Wilson, independent scholar and an editor of the American Association of University Professors’ "Academe" blog, wrote a post about the incident, saying that for “those on the left who demand that tech companies censor speech they think are wrong or offensive, this is a chilling reminder that censorship is a dangerous weapon that can be turned against progressives.”
It’s also a reminder of “how vulnerable online learning is under corporate control,” Wilson wrote. “All colleges that use Zoom ought to demand that Zoom commit to protecting free expression of academic classes and events on its platform.”
A Zoom spokesperson said in a statement that the service is “committed to supporting the open exchange of ideas and conversations, subject to certain limitations contained in our Terms of Service, including those related to user compliance with applicable U.S. export control, sanctions and anti-terrorism laws.”
In light of Khaled’s “reported affiliation or membership in a U.S. designated foreign terrorist organization, and SFSU’s inability to confirm otherwise,” the spokesperson said, “we determined the meeting is in violation of Zoom’s Terms of Service and told SFSU they may not use Zoom for this particular event.”
YouTube said that it terminated the livestream in line with "clear policies" regarding content featuring or posted by members of violent criminal organizations, specifically "content praising or justifying violent acts carried out by violent criminal or terrorist organizations."
A spokesperson for Facebook said the promotional content it took down violated its policy "prohibiting praise, support and representation for dangerous organizations and individuals, which applies to pages, content and events."
Abdulhadi, director of the Arab and Muslim ethnicities and diasporas program, did not respond to a request for comment.
Some have said that Abdulhadi’s actions were criminal, in that she misused the public university’s name and resources for personal or political gain, including the promotion of the academic boycott movement against Israel, in which she is active.
The letter from AMCHA and other groups, for instance, says that Abdulhadi “deprives her students of access to vital information about complex topics of global importance, as well as their fundamental right to be educated and not indoctrinated; foments a divisive and toxic atmosphere, both inside and outside the classroom, that incites hatred and harm towards Jewish and pro-Israel students; and seriously erodes the public trust in your university to uphold its academic mission and ensure the safety and well-being of all of its students.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education scoffed at the notion that Abdulhadi broke the law, saying the idea that faculty members can't discuss "anything that might be seen as 'political'" is "unconstitutionally overbroad, reaching far beyond the government’s interest in limiting the use of public resources" in the narrow matter of elections.
San Francisco State referred all questions about the matter to a statement by President Lynn Mahoney, saying that San Francisco State “remains steadfast in its support of the right of faculty to conduct their teaching and scholarship free from censorship, in this instance the right of two faculty members to host ‘Whose Narratives? Gender, Justice, & Resistance: A Conversation with Leila Khaled’ as part of a virtual class.”
A university can, “at the same time, allow its students and faculty the freedom to express contrary, even objectionable, views while also condemning anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Blackness, racism, and other hateful ideologies that marginalize people,” Mahoney said. “These are complex issues but universities above all other places should be places to debate and question complexities.”
San Francisco State worked “hard to prevent this outcome and [has] been actively engaging with Zoom,” Mahoney said, and “based on the information we have been able to gather to date, the university does not believe that the class panel discussion violates Zoom’s terms of service or the law.” Although the university disagrees with and is "disappointed by, Zoom’s decision not to allow the event to proceed on its platform, we also recognize that Zoom is a private company that has the right to set its own terms of service in its contracts with users," she said.
Going forward, Mahoney said, “We cannot embrace the silencing of controversial views, even if they are hurtful to others. We must commit to speech and to the right to dissent, including condemning ideologies of hatred and violence against unarmed civilians.”
Audrey Watters, an independent scholar who writes about education technology and has called herself ed tech’s Cassandra, said the Khaled case reveals “what a precarious place academic freedom is in right now. Attacks are coming from the Trump administration, with its threats to withhold funds for those who study and teach about race and gender, as well as from the technology companies that universities have become reliant upon, particularly during the pandemic.”
While the upcoming presidential election “might give some people hope to address the censorship threats that come from the former,” she continued, those coming from tech companies “are going to be much harder to unwind. Can there be academic freedom and open inquiry when technology companies are able to control what gets researched and discussed on their platforms?”
Typically when scholars question academic freedom at their institutions, they appeal to their faculty governance bodies or administrations, or to the AAUP and other outside groups to apply pressure. Ed-tech companies, and especially general platforms such as Zoom, don’t necessarily deal day to day in academic freedom issues and may be less responsive to faculty demands. Khaled presents something of an extreme test, given her history, but it’s worth asking where else Zoom, YouTube and the like might draw the line. Would all these platforms have streamed former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial 2007 speech at Columbia University, for instance?
Watters said the discussion reminded her somewhat of “efforts taken a decade-ish ago when departments started to prepare what to do in case the social media mob came for a professor.”
“It seems worth talking about the potential for this problem now, before another Zoom censorship situation arises,” she added.