PROTECT SFSU FACULTY MEMBERS’ ACADEMIC FREEDOM:
DEMAND THAT SFSU PRESIDENT LYNN MAHONEY RESIGN
On September 23, 2020, San Francisco State University (SFSU) administrators collaborated with corporate tech giants Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube to shut down a virtual Open Classroom entitled “Whose Narratives? Gender, Justice, & Resistance: A Conversation with Leila Khaled.”
This virtual Open Classroom, co-organized by Professor Rabab Abdulhadi, founding director of SFSU’s Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas (AMED) Studies program, and Professor Tomomi Kinukawa, lecturer in the Women and Gender Studies Department, was to feature Palestinian resistance icon Leila Khaled in conversation with Palestinian, Black, Jewish, and South African academics and former political prisoners Rula Abu Dahou, Ronnie Kasrils, Sekou Odinga, and Laura Whitehorn.
However, after a coordinated and intense outside campaign by Zionist and right-wing pressure groups calling to cancel the Open Classroom, first Zoom and then the university refused to allow the webinar to run. When organizers changed virtual venues and began livestreaming on YouTube instead, coordinated protest from Zionists and Right-wing agitators petitioning YouTube succeeded in shutting down that videostream as well. Almost simultaneously, previous references and invitations to the webinar were deleted from hundreds of people’s Facebook pages and Instagram accounts.
In response to this coordinated censorship campaign, SFSU President Lynn Mahoney stated that while “the University does not believe that the class panel discussion violates Zoom’s terms of service or the law,” she nevertheless also concedes that “Zoom is a private company that has the right to set its own terms of service in its contracts with users.” In other words, President Mahoney would take no action to defend her faculty from these attacks on their academic freedom.
Profs. Abdulhadi and Kinukawa therefore filed a grievance, via their union, against the university for failing to protect their academic freedom. This grievance was upheld by the 3-member faculty panel that heard their claim. Specifically, the panel found that:
San Francisco State University has inflicted harm upon Dr. Abdulhadi (and co-instructor, Dr. Kinukawa) and that her academic freedom was, in fact, violated….We assert that…the university caused direct harm in the form of (1) mental health stress, and (2) a relinquishing of the university’s responsibility to uphold academic freedom.
By way of remedy, the faculty panel ordered SFSU to:
issue a public apology to Prof. Abdulhadi for failing to uphold her academic freedom;
- issue a public letter voicing support for faculty members’ academic freedom; and
provide a platform for re-scheduling the original, censored webinar without interference.
SFSU President Mahoney has rejected the panel’s finding and remedies, however, which means that the matter will now go to mandatory arbitration.
This incident is an unprecedented public-private collaboration in the silencing of academic freedom, Palestinian voices, and social justice movements. It is emblematic of the corporate takeover of universities and the influence of Zionist and Right-wing organizations and individuals, along with the power of capital, to set the agenda for what can and cannot be said or taught in a public university. It is further evidence of what has come to be called “the Palestine exception” to campus life, political speech, and academic freedom.
Indeed, what is happening at SFSU is emblematic of a nationwide phenomenon of right-wing targeting of higher education. For example, on the basis of dubious misreadings and bad faith understanding, the Right has generated a moral panic around “critical race theory,” by which they really mean any pedagogical challenge to white supremacy. In so doing, they have succeeded in pressuring states across the country to legislate against the teaching of not just antiracism, but also, and more correctly understood, a longstanding, well-respected area of academic scholarship in public schools and universities. Meanwhile, Campus Reform and Turning Point USA are only two of the most high-profile members of a vast network of well-funded Right-wing organizations — including projects such as Canary Mission, which aim specifically to target scholarship and student activism on Palestine — whose sole reason for existence is to create conditions of fear and intimidation, redolent of McCarthyism, in order to eliminate specific faculty, specific sets of research and curriculum, and, ultimately, the university as a whole an institution of knowledge production.
As faculty members, as anti-racists, and as anti-Zionists, we are aghast at the compromised and unprincipled actions of President Mahoney, her collaboration with corporate tech giants to erode academic freedom, and her complicity with outside Right-wing organizations who seek to determine classroom curricula at SFSU. In such bleak and uncertain times, it is essential that faculty be able to rely on their university administrators to protect them from disingenuous and aggressive outside attacks on their ideas and scholarship.
We therefore hereby demand that President Mahoney and SFSU immediately implement the remedies specified by the faculty panel that heard Profs. Abdulhadi’s and Kinukawi’s grievance regarding academic freedom.
Moreover, as President Mahoney’s behavior and decision-making in this case render her unfit for her position as President of a public institution of higher learning who is charged, among other things, with the protection of her faculty and their academic freedom, we also demand her immediate resignation.
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Backgrounder on the SFSU + Zoom Censorship:
On September 23, 2020, San Francisco State University (SFSU) administrators collaborated with corporate tech giants Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube to shut down a virtual open classroom entitled “Whose Narratives? Gender, Justice, & Resistance: A Conversation with Leila Khaled,” organized by Profs. Rabab Abdulhadi and Tomomi Kinukawa.
After a coordinated and intense outside campaign by Zionist and Right-wing pressure groups calling to cancel the Open Classroom, Zoom, with whom SFSU has a large-scale corporate account, refused to allow the webinar to be aired. When the event organizers realized that their event had been de-platformed by Zoom, they quickly switched virtual venues and began live-streaming the Open Classroom on YouTube. Once again, coordinated protest from Zionists and Right-wing agitators flooded YouTube’s complaints platform and succeeded in shutting down the videostream there as well not more than 15 minutes into the proceedings. Meanwhile, all previous references and invitations to the webinar were immediately deleted from hundreds of Facebook pages and Instagram accounts.
Zoom censored the Open Classroom on the grounds that hosting Khaled potentially constituted material support for terrorism and would thus be a violation of federal law. This, however, was a scare tactic manufactured by Zionist lawfare organizations used to intimidate both the corporations and the university, but which has no factual or legal basis. It proved sufficient, however, to scare first the tech companies and, then, SFSU university administration, which complied with Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube’s capitulation to bullying and intimidation by well-funded, Right-wing, and Zionist organizations in facilitating the webinar’s cancellation. Provost Jennifer Summit even wrote to Profs. Abdulhadi and Kinukawa telling them to seek their own legal representation in response to such threats, rather than acting to defend SFSU faculty members’ academic freedom.
Ever since this massive, coordinated de-platforming, SFSU has refused to defend the academic freedom of Profs. Abdulhadi and Kinukawa, who have not been provided with an alternate forum by the university to continue their Open Classrooms. Instead, they have been forced to rely on outside resources to continue their important academic and community work. Facebook even went so far as to delete the AMED Studies page hosted by the SFSU department, which archived years’ worth of talks and events about the history of liberation struggles across the globe, denying Professor Abdulhadi and her countless supporters a platform to continue their critical, community-centered pedagogy.
Prof. Abdulhadi filed two statutory grievances against the university over its conduct, specifically the violation of her academic freedom in the matter of the open classroom and breach of contract in the ongoing mistreatment and neglect of the AMED Studies program. The academic freedom grievance was heard by a panel of SFSU faculty on Oct. 14, 2021. The panel found that:
San Francisco State University has inflicted harm upon Dr. Abdulhadi and co-instructor, Dr. Kinukawa) and that her academic freedom was, in fact, violated….We assert that…the university caused direct harm in the form of (1) mental health stress, and (2) a relinquishing of the university’s responsibility to uphold academic freedom.
By way of remedy, the faculty panel ordered SFSU to issue a public apology to Prof. Abdulhadi for failing to uphold her academic freedom; issue a public letter voicing support for faculty members’ academic freedom; and provide a platform for re-scheduling the original, censored webinar without interference.
On November 4, 2021, SFSU President Lynn Mahoney rejected the faculty panel’s decision and proposed remedies. The official language of the decision, written not by Mahoney but rather Vice President of Human Resources Ingrid Williams, asserted that SFSU had “not violated University policies nor the Academic Senate policy on Academic Freedom.” This seems implausible, however, when compared with the Senate policy, which states with regard to “Academic Freedom in Teaching and Instruction” that:
- Faculty members are free to present and express professional opinions in their courses without interference.
- Faculty members are free to decide how best to teach their courses, in keeping with their professional judgment, without interference. This includes, but is not limited to, choice of course content, materials, teaching methods, technologies, and modes of delivery for specific course content and for any course as a whole (e.g., the choice of face-to-face, hybrid, or online instruction). . . .
- Faculty members are free to choose ways to relate the subject matter of their courses to matters they themselves deem relevant, including, but not limited to, public affairs, current events and community issues.
- Faculty members are free to present and discuss in formal and informal instructional settings all aspects of any academic subject, including controversial material, insofar as such material is relevant to the topic of instruction.
Mahoney’s decision also belies the fact that, on the morning of the censored Open Classroom, SFSU officials reached out to Dr. Abdulhadi’s team with explicit clarification that the university was unable to provide an alternative platform offering the same capabilities as Zoom, and so recommended that Drs. Abdulhadi and Kinukawa try instead to stream from Facebook and/or Youtube through a personal Skype account. They provided no guidance or support in how to accomplish this, and consistently refused to provide Drs. Abdulhadi and Kinukawa the list of registrants for the event in order to ensure their access to a possible alternative streaming location. In any event, Mahoney’s ruling now means that the case will go to an automatic, independent arbitration.
This case is an egregious example of a university administration abandoning its students and faculty, failing to protect academic freedom and the university’s core mission, and caving to Zionist, corporate, and donor pressure to curate a public university’s curriculum. It is all the more ominous given the facts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has rendered students and faculty more dependent than ever on online platforms as universities effectively outsource their classrooms to Zoom.
Moreover, the silencing of Abdulhadi, Kinukawa, Khaled, and the other participants in the targeted webinar is very specific to heightened attacks on the Palestinian liberation struggle and indigenous struggles against ongoing colonization and genocide more broadly. The excuse given by Zoom and SFSU for their reactionary pushback against the webinar was that they received complaints from customers about “terrorism”: that Leila Khaled herself is a “terrorist,” that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) is a “terrorist” organization, or that hosting Khaled was equivalent to providing “material support” for “terrorism” and as such could be a criminal act punishable by imprisonment. However, Zionist and right-wing groups have long mislabeled Palestinian resistance as “terrorism,” in a cynical effort, encouraged by the Israeli state, to dismiss, demonize, and delegitimate anti-colonial political struggle. Palestinians have engaged in ongoing resistance to the theft of their land and properties; to call this “terrorism” is a devaluing of their lives as both innately violent and “anti-Semitic.” Moreover, such tactics deliberately disregard the tenets of international law, which are clear that armed resistance to colonial oppression is legal.
In order to challenge the threat to academic freedom posed by the cancellation of the Leila Khaled webinar, then, we recognize the need to challenge the weaponization of “terrorism” allegations, in addition to continuing to hold university administrators accountable for protecting their faculty. Such accusations have become a knee-jerk tool for silencing Palestinian resistance, especially when and where it intersects and allies with the resistance movements of Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples everywhere, including those which express, as has the Palestinian resistance, opposition to US-led/-backed empire and settler colonialism.