Zoom and YouTube Threaten Academic Freedom

The Centre for Free Expression, along with its co-signers BCCLA, CAUT, CCLA, and PEN Canada, have written today to the CEOs of Zoom and YouTube to express deep concern with the companies’ censorship of an academic roundtable at an American university.

This action points to the new threat to academic freedom when, because of the coronavirus, most classes and other educational activities of universities and colleges are only possible through platforms such as Zoom and YouTube. 

In this instance, Zoom and YouTube chose to be censors for what can be discussed at a university forum, thereby overriding academic freedom that is the foundation of the university and its societal mission to educate students and advance knowledge.

The event to which they denied access was an online roundtable that was part of San  Francisco State University’s Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies  program. Titled “Whose Narratives? Gender, Justice and Resistance”, one of the invited panelists was Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), which is designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States Department of State and is a Listed Terrorist Entity in Canada.  In 1969 and 1970, Khaled participated in two airline hijackings. After the second, she was taken into custody, but was later released in an exchange for the release of hostages in a subsequent hijacking.

The roundtable was scheduled to be hosted on Zoom, pursuant to the platform’s agreement with the University. After becoming aware of  the  planned discussion, organizations which oppose PFLP’s activities or politics pressured San Francisco State University to cancel the roundtable. They argued that, by hosting the event, Zoom would be in violation of U.S. laws forbidding the provision of “material support” to designated foreign terrorist groups.

San Francisco State President Lynn Mahoney objected, affirming “The University remains steadfast in its support of the right of faculty to conduct their teaching and scholarship free from censorship” and that “universities above all other places should be places to debate and question complexities.”

Zoom responded by refusing to host the discussion – despite its claim that it is “committed to supporting the open exchange of ideas and conversations” and despite the fact that no U.S. court has ever ruled that merely allowing a member of a designated  terrorist group to speak at an academic forum constitutes “material support” for that group.  

After Zoom’s refusal, roundtable organizers attempted to move the event to YouTube. But after approximately 23 minutes, YouTube stopped the livestream – despite its stated position that it “believes people should be able to speak freely, share opinions, foster open dialogue,” and that “everyone should have easy, open access to information.”

The companies’ decisions undermine their purported support for free expression and raise serious questions about the utility of the platforms for academic purposes.

The Centre for Free Expression and its co-signors strongly urge Zoom and YouTube to reaffirm their recognition of academic freedom and freedom of expression rights so vital to healthy public discourse and the proper functioning of our higher educational institutions and to recognize that what they did at San Francisco State University was serious mistake and commit not to undermine academic freedom again.

To read the letter to Zoom and YouTube, click here.

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