The US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel supports this petition, which comes in response to egregious assault on academic freedom that happened on September 23, 2020, at SFSU. Signing the petition is intended to demonstrate academic solidarity with Palestine, Palestinian feminist narratives, and in the defense of academic freedom.
WHOSE CLASSROOMS? CENSORSHIP, CORPORATE MEDIA, AND THE SUPPRESSION OF ACADEMIC FREEDOM
Concerned Faculty, Students and Communities Committed to the Preservation of Academic Freedom in US Higher Education
On Wednesday, September 23, 2020, Zoom, FaceBook and YouTube censored an open virtual classroom titled Whose Narratives? Gender, Justice & Resistance: A Conversation with Leila Khaled, a collaboration between the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas (AMED) Studies and the Women and Gender Studies (WGS) at San Francisco State University (SFSU). Zoom cancelled the airing of the class on its platform the evening prior to the event; FaceBook shut down the live streaming and even removed the announcement of the webinar from AMED Studies events, threatening co-sponsors that they risk the shutting down of their pages; and YouTube abruptly shut down the live streaming a mere 23 minutes into the presentation. The reason given was that the panel included a conversation with Leila Khaled, the Palestinian feminist icon who was and remains involved in resistance to Israeli colonialism, racism and occupation.
Within a few hours, these private corporate platforms were able to erase many weeks of hard work and their intellectual fruits. These included the unique convening of public intellectuals from three continents to discuss vital questions, such as the role of women and gender in liberation movements, prisoner and Indigenous narratives, and concepts like “violence” and “resistance.” Above all, the three tech giants foreclosed critical engagement and learning of some 1500 students, faculty, and public attendees who had signed up for the webinar.
SFSU is part of the California State University (CSU), the largest public university system in the US. CSU has gone fully online due to the COVID-19 pandemic and now uses Zoom as a primary mode of online teaching. In fact, SFSU has an exclusive contract with Zoom, making it dependent on Zoom for conducting its university affairs. However, rather than seriously challenging Zoom’s corporate control over education and defending the rights of its faculty, the University administration chose to defer (in the words of its president) to a “private [company’s] . . . right to set its own terms of service in its contracts with users.” It thereby empowered a multi-billion-dollar corporation to control public education and the content of the curriculum and to violate the academic freedom of the two SFSU faculty members who had organized the event: Professor Rabab Abdulhadi, Senior Scholar and director of the AMED program; and Professor Tomomi Kinukawa, lecturer in Women and Gender Studies. And this cancellation is only the latest incident in over ten-year history of harassment of the AMED program.
We have long known that social media is a political battleground–and one whose alleged “content neutrality” is a corporate myth. What has changed under conditions of the pandemic is that schools and universities are now dependent on platforms like Zoom, FaceBook and YouTube to be the conduits of learning in the absence of in-person classes. With the almost silent complicity of university administrations like SFSU, private corporations are handed unprecedented control over the content of education. This is a clear and entirely new usurpation of academic freedom. Further, the university has abdicated its responsibility of finding an alternative platform to ensure that a classroom virtual event would proceed without disruption. We also know that Israeli government agents and Zionist advocacy groups such as Lawfare exerted heavy pressure for weeks, first on the university and then on Zoom, citing possible criminal liability related to violations of US anti-terrorism laws if the webinar happened.
The university’s shared governance guarantees that course content must be under the purview of faculty. That is a major element of academic freedom. Whatever forces were at play at Zoom, their action served a specific political and ideological mission: shutting down support for and debate over Palestinian freedom and criticism of Israel’s colonial rule over Palestine on university campuses and beyond. Neither Zoom nor any other corporation or outside private interests should be allowed to veto or censor the content of classrooms and university-sponsored public events. By censoring this open classroom webinar, Zoom directly violated the CSU, SFSU, and AAUP norms and protocols on academic freedom, including the California Faculty Association’s Collective Bargaining Agreement. We cannot allow either the predatory encroachment of private interests on public education or the dictates of tech giants to determine what faculty teach and students learn.
What happened in September at SFSU should alert all higher education faculty to the threats posed by these private companies on campuses across the country and internationally. It is particularly dangerous for teaching, research and learning about Palestine. It also has serious implications in these very conservative times for universities everywhere as centers of knowledge production about many controversial issues and ideas, particularly those related to gender, sexuality, migration, racism, policing, and the criminalization of Black and Indigenous lives. WE MUST STOP THIS DANGEROUS TREND and come together to demand that:
1) SFSU provides an alternative public platform for a rescheduled webinar that assures no students or other participants will be denied the right to attend and hear from Leila Khaled and the other luminaries on the panel.
2) SFSU commits publicly to assuring that it will guarantee respect and protection for the academic freedom of its faculty, following the protocols of established faculty governance.
3) SFSU’s President issues a public apology to Professors Abdulhadi and Kinukawa, their invited guests, and all the 1,500 SFSU students and other participants who registered for the open classroom.
4) Faculty and students across the country demand of their own universities a renewed and firm commitment to defend academic freedom and to resist any monopoly over our curricula by these tech giants and any other powerful external interests. Demand universities END CONTRACTS WITH ZOOM!