Photo of Leila Khaled wearing a keffiyeh with fist raised in the air, logos of Zoom, Facebook, and YouTube in the background.

Zoom Censors New York University AAUP Webinar

A Zoom executive recently was identified as the person who fed information to the Chinese government, which in turn exerted pressure on Zoom to shut down several webinars in Summer 2020. The webinars were organized to discuss the 1989 Tian’anmen social movement and subsequent state- sponsored massacre.

Every year, around the anniversary of the June 4th events, the PRC tightens the parameters of digital and in-person memoration. Zoom webinars – often technologically dependent on China’s airspace – are yet one more arena in which the PRC state can exercise its censoring directives. In response, most non-Chinese universities have upheld the right of their professors, staff, and students to discuss and research the 1989 massacre along with its antecedents and aftermaths.

In great contrast, discussions of and protests against the physical and rhetorical violence perpetrated upon Palestinian people by the State of Israel and Israel-aligned groups abroad are treated exceptionally. Routine censorship of events that involve Palestine not only is allowed, but is defended by many University leaders. New York University President, Andrew Hamilton, is a case in point of one who conflates Palestinian voices against Israeli violence with a defense of terrorism.

In October 2020, NYU professors attempted to convene a Zoom webinar co-sponsored by a number of departments and the AAUP NYU chapter.

The webinar was organized after the censorship, by Zoom and other tech platforms, of an open classroom session in September at San Francisco State University featuring, among others, the Palestinian rights advocate Leila Khaled. The SFSU event and others at other institutions were shut down at the behest of US-based third party groups, whose anti-Palestinian activism is both predictable and rigidly in lockstep with the Israeli State.

The October NYU event was to include a discussion of the comprehensive silencing of Palestinians who insist on speaking about continuous Israeli violence against their people and land; it featured recent MacArthur award recipient, Fred Moten. The NYU event protesting censorship was itself censored by pressure exerted on Zoom by the same third party entities.

Immediately thereafter, AAUP-NYU and campus departments wrote to President Hamilton to protest the apparent complicity of NYU with Zoom. Hamilton alleged that NYU had had no prior knowledge of the Zoom actions, yet in his November 6, 2020 communication to NYU’s AAUP Executive Committee, he wrote the following defense of pre-emptive censorship: “Zoom indicated that it became aware of this [NYU] event after being directed to it by third parties, and came to conclude that our event … violated the anti- terrorism provisions of its terms of service… 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 criminal liability.” He added, in a transparently subservient bow to anti-Palestinian activism,
and as if the NYU event had been organized to advocate for terrorism: “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.”

On December 6, NYU’s Middle East and Islamic Studies Department sent a follow-up letter to Hamilton. In part, it states: “We remain troubled that your letter went on to justify

Zoom’s actions by invoking dubious interpretations of law and the politicized concept of ‘terrorism’…. It is not acceptable to simply acquiesce to assertions and complaints coming from third parties. Instead, it is crucial that New York University take a leading role in defending universities as places in which faculty and students can engage in free inquiry about all topics, without the specter of contractors arbitrating how we might do so.”

To date, there has been no response. In a shameful abdication of leadership, the NYU administration cannot or will not stand up to Zoom in defense of academic freedom, and, in lockstep with almost all other US universities, it continues to single out speech regarding Palestinian rights as worthy of condemnation.

This article first appeared in the New York Academe newsletter (volume 45, number 1, Winter 2021).