Censorship Online: Academic Freedom and Digital Platforms

MESA has noted with growing concern the arbitrary censorship of academic events in North America on a variety of online platforms. Please see the October 29, 2020 statement by the MESA Board of Directors: MESA Statement on Academic Freedom and Corporate Control of Digital Platforms

MESA is collecting primary source documents and links to media reporting on related topics.


San francisco state universiTy




New York University


October 23, 2020 - NYU AAUP Chapter Statement

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.

Response from President Andrew Hamilton

Dear Professor Karl, Members of the AAUP Executive Committee, Members of the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, Members of the Kevorkian Center, Members of the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, and Members of the Gallatin Human Rights Initiative,

Thank you for sharing your concerns with me. I fully understand your feelings on this matter.

We are in agreement, you and I,that NYU is and must be committed to academic freedom, the free exchange of ideas, and the authority of faculty in matters of research, teaching, and academic events. This is a core principle of higher education. Accordingly, I am troubled whenever there is interference with academic programming organized by our faculty, and we have expressed our consternation to Zoom about their intervention in the event, which came without notice and explanation. After Zoom's cancellation, the event was switched to another platform and went forward; this is one of the reasons NYU maintains more than one platform.

Zoom indicated that it became aware of this event after being directed to it by third parties, and came to conclude that our event and the prior events (at SFSU and Hawaii) violated the anti-terrorism provisions of its terms of service and might have left it in jeopardy of criminal anti-terrorism laws. While their interpretation might be open to argument, it is not a surprise that businesses will steer away from actions that they believe may leave them open to criminally liability.

I would also note that terrorist violence conflicts with academic freedom; it is at odds with values that universities hold dear: reason, dispassion, freedom of speech and inquiry, respect for individuals and individual liberties.

Andrew Hamilton

November 9, 2020 - Letter from NYU AAUP Executive Committee to President Andrew Hamilton

Dear President Hamilton,

Thank you for the response to our letter of concern about Zoom censorship, and to those sent from various Departments, Schools, and the Contract Senators’ Council. It is important for AAUP members – at NYU and nationally -- and for the faculty at large, to know that the administration fully understands how NYU’s dependence on a third-party private vendor like Zoom poses a threat to the lifeblood of academic freedom.

We note with alarm, however, that your letter does not provide any safeguards against future shutdowns of academic events by entities such as Zoom. Surely, this was an opportunity for NYU to review its contractual relationship with Zoom, and to reassure faculty and students that further speech censorship would not be tolerated. Unfortunately, there is no such guarantee or pledge in your letter. We urge you to issue a much stronger statement about NYU’s resolve to protect academic speech rights in the event of a recurrence. Corporate platforms, like Zoom and Google (NYU’s backup platform), cannot be allowed to dictate what is being said on NYU’s campuses. Just as important, academic speech cannot continue to be vulnerable to organized pressure from the politically-motivated groups who lobbied Zoom, and who regularly petition university presidents, to crack down on campus speech by Palestinians or with Palestinian content. NYU has the opportunity to lead here. Please seize it.

In addition, we are very troubled by your concluding comment that “terrorist violence conflicts with academic freedom.” Why is that the lesson to be drawn from the censorship of this event? Many NYU faculty teach colonial and anti-colonial history in one form or another, or study and teach about movements opposed to state injustice. We all know that labels like “terrorist,” or other extremist designations, have routinely been applied to dissident actors and groups expressing resistance to an unjust status quo. The label is sometimes casually, and dangerously, applied to entire national or ethnic populations, as it often has been to the Palestinian people, and increasingly now, to Arabs, or Muslims. In China, for example, sympathy for and recognition of Uyghurs incarcerated by the PRC State in Xinjiang is construed as actual or potential support for terrorism. As scholars, it is our job to analyze and interrogate these designations, and not to accept them as given. Teaching, research, and the exchange of ideas on these important matters is impossible if they are subject to being construed as illegitimate, or as somehow in conflict with academic freedom.

According to several legal and civil rights advocacy groups, Zoom’s rationale for the shutdowns (at SFSU, University of Hawaii, and NYU) --that hosting speech by Leila Khaled, a Palestinian rights advocate, constitutes “material support for terrorism”--has no basis in law or fact. To extend counterterrorism laws to pure speech and academic discourse would undermine all of our First Amendment rights to speech and association. Yet that is how Zoom, under pressure from the lobby groups, interpreted these laws. NYU’s faculty and its lawyers know better, and your letter should have said as much in response.

In closing, we must point out that Leila Khaled is not, and never has been, on a US terror watch list. By way of contrast, Nelson Mandela and the ANC, for whom he served as military commander during its period of armed resistance to apartheid rule in South Africa, were not removed from the terrorism watch list until 2008. In what parallel world would an NYU seminar featuring Mandela’s words have been censored?

NYU-AAUP Executive Committee


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