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

Zoom Censorship and Academic Freedom: NYU-AAUP’s Response to NYU President Andrew Hamilton

November 9, 2020

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

Letter from Hamilton

November 6, 2020

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 D. Hamilton


New York University