The expanded use by institutions of higher learning across the United States and Canada of corporate-controlled videoconferencing platforms poses threats to the free and safe exchange of ideas. To uphold their commitment to the principles of academic freedom and vigorously protect freedom of expression and exchange of ideas – the hallmark of the academy- university administrators must address such threats promptly and decisively. The threat posed by corporate control of media platforms is apparent in the recent unilateral actions taken by Zoom to shut down events about Palestine at US universities.
On 23 September 2020, Zoom cancelled a virtual open classroom titled “Whose Narratives? Gender, Justice, Resistance: A Conversation with Leila Khaled,” organized by San Francisco State University (SFSU) Professors Rabab Abdulhadi and Tomomi Kinukawa and sponsored by SFSU’s Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diaspora Studies Program and its Women and Gender Studies Department. The communication technology company apparently shut down the program in response to pressures from groups based outside the university seeking to further their political agendas: among them, to limit open discussion of the Palestine/Israel conflict. Zoom claimed that the webinar violated its terms of service with the SFSU even as it affirmed its commitment to the free exchange of ideas. It is ironic, that despite that assertion, Zoom also cancelled two webinars organized at the University of Hawaii at Monoa (UHM) and New York University (NYU) to discuss Zoom’s censorship of the event. The UHM webinar, cosponsored by the Department of Ethnic Studies and Political Science, and the Students and Faculty for Justice in Palestine, was cancelled two days before it was to take place, while the webinar titled “Against the Censorship and Criminalization of Academic Political Speech,” organized by the NYU chapter of the American Association of University Professors and cosponsored by several NYU departments and institutes, was unilaterally cancelled without knowledge of the NYU administration and without prior warning to the organizers on 23 October, the day it was scheduled to be held.
Zoom’s cancellation of the SFSU event poses a threat to the constitutionally protected rights to free speech and the free exchange of ideas within the university. Zoom’s subsequent censorship of academic webinars held to protest its earlier act of censorship is even more egregious; it displays the company’s apparent willingness to suppress the expression of certain viewpoints. While the Palestine/Israel issue is emerging as a testing ground for contestation of academic freedom within corporate-controlled meeting platforms, Zoom’s cancellation of these webinars carries wider implications for the academy. As the Association for Asian Studies’ 20 July 2020 statement has warned, the move to digital platforms for videoconferencing raises concerns about security and academic freedom, particularly for faculty and students teaching and learning about China.
Lynn Mahoney, SFSU’s president, claimed to disagree with Zoom’s decision to cancel the webinar at her university. However, she affirmed its right as a private company to enforce its policies. Her response speaks to the untested terrain that universities must navigate in their dealings with vendors of online meeting platforms. It also underscores the responsibility of university administrators and faculty to educate themselves about how the terms of service of these companies may be at odds with core values of academic freedom. Universities must remain vigilant in protecting the security and academic freedom of their faculty and students.
MESA’s Board of Directors calls on university administrators to robustly defend the academic freedom of their faculty, students, and staff within Zoom and other corporate-controlled virtual meeting platforms.