Opinion

Big Tech’s dangerous attack on free speech and academic freedom: Zoom, Facebook, and YouTube censor SF State Palestine class

“This is a dangerous attack on free speech and academic freedom from Big Tech: Zoom cannot claim veto power over the content of our nation’s classrooms and public events”
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Editor’s Note: The following statement was issued on September 23, 2020 by Palestine Legal. Mondoweiss occasionally publishes press releases and statements from organizations in an effort to draw attention to overlooked issues.

Three tech giants censored an online class featuring Palestinian, Black, Jewish and South African activists at San Francisco State University, after pro-Israel advocacy groups complained.

The open classroom event “Whose Narratives?: Gender, Justice & Resistance” featured Palestinian activist Leila Khaled and was scheduled to take place at 12:30 PDT before being erased from Zoom, Facebook and YouTube.

One day before the scheduled event, Zoom announced it would not permit the event with Ms. Khaled to take place. Zoom had previously threatened to terminate the account for the entire California State University (CSU) system if SFSU allowed the event to proceed.

Facebook removed the event page the day of the event, and YouTube repeatedly shut down streams of the event within minutes after they began streaming on that platform.

“This is a dangerous attack on free speech and academic freedom from Big Tech: Zoom cannot claim veto power over the content of our nation’s classrooms and public events,” said Dima Khalidi, director of Palestine Legal. “The threat to democracy is elevated by the fact that Zoom’s decision to stamp out discussion of Palestinian freedom comes in response to a systematic repression campaign driven by the Israeli government and its allies.” 

The event is organized by the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas (AMED) Studies program and program in Women and Gender Studies at SFSU and features Ms. Khaled in conversation with several prominent activists from Black and South African liberation movements and Jewish Voice for Peace.

As of Wednesday morning, event registration was open on Zoom and an event page was live on Facebook. By 9:30 a.m. PDT, both pages had been taken down.

“This censorship violates our freedom of speech and academic freedom as faculty to teach, deprives our students from the right to learn, and denies the general public the right to hear from speakers who are not readily available on mainstream media,” said Drs. Rabab Abdulhadi and Tomomi Kinukawa, co-organizers of the event, in an email to the SFSU Provost Jennifer Summit. “SFSU and CSU should not participate in such censorship directly or indirectly.”

“It’s outrageous for Zoom, which has assumed such a prominent role in online learning during the pandemic, to interject itself into this university-approved classroom event by threatening to sever its contract with CSU completely,” said attorney Dan Siegel, who is representing Professor Abdulhadi.

Zoom’s actions followed pressure from right-wing Zionist organizations including the Lawfare Project and an Israeli government-sponsored app that is taking credit for the cancellation.

These right-wing groups peddle a dangerously over-broad theory that hosting Ms. Khaled, who is 76, to discuss critical narratives of resistance, gender and sexual justice constitutes criminal activity. They argue that because she has been publicly affiliated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a group that the U.S. has designated as a terrorist organization, professors at San Francisco State are not allowed to host her as a speaker.

Ms. Khaled is not being compensated for her talk and the exchange of ideas in a university setting is constitutionally protected free speech.

Several of the other speakers were part of resistance and liberation movements that were once criminalized, including:

  • Sekou Odinga, a former member of the Black Liberation Army and political prisoner for 33 years
  • Ronnie Kasrils, a Jewish anti-Zionist activist and former member of the armed wing of the African National Congress
  • and Laura Whitehorn, a political prisoner for 14 years and current member of Jewish Voice for Peace, which has been attacked by Zionist groups and the Israeli government

Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi, a prominent Palestinian scholar-activist has faced relentless attacks from Zionist organizations – most recently after giving a guest lecture at UCLA in 2019 where she critiqued Zionism as a political ideology of supremacy akin to white supremacy.

UCLA concluded that there had been no wrongdoing in an investigation of the lecture due to a complaint from a student who disagreed with her views.

Despite this, the right-wing Zionist group StandWithUs filed a federal civil rights complaint against UCLA in October 2019 over the lecture, which the Trump administration opened as a formal investigation in January 2020 following an executive order adopting a distorted redefinition of antisemitism that targets advocacy for Palestinian rights.

Last month, over 120 pro-Israel groups sent a letter lobbying Facebook to censor criticism of Israel by labeling it as hate speech using Trump’s definition of antisemitism. Adopting this definition will give even broader latitude to the censorship of Palestine advocacy.

“Right-wing Israel proxy groups, the Trump administration, and Big Tech firms are conspiring to censor any and all discussion about or advocacy for Palestinian freedom at a time when Trump’s foreign policy seeks to liquidate the Palestinian issue,” said Dima Khalidi. “They will not succeed, because people who believe in democracy, dissent, and freedom for all will not be silenced.”

The General Union of Palestine Students at SFSU issued the following statement

“If SFSU prides itself on its values of critical ethnic studies thought, and representation in curriculum of all ethnicities and races, it should itself as an institution uphold those values and defend its faculty against censorship and attacks. SFSU must ensure that Zoom does not have control over its curriculum.”

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I’m sure the movement can find some speakers that aren’t plane hijackers. If anything these tech platforms are doing you a favor; associating your brand with terror isn’t going to win you new supporters.

Most likely just a random coincidence.

As soon as I saw the headline, I knew the article was a joke. Zoom, Facebook, and YouTube can’t censor anything. Censorship is when the government prevents you from publishing something. What happened was that a private platform tossed them out. It’s a private party, you have to play by their rules, and yes, lots of times friends have a say in who comes to your party too. You don’t like Zoom, Facebook, and YouTube’s… Read more »