Few companies have benefited from the coronavirus pandemic as much as Zoom, the online conferencing platform that has become a ubiquitous substitute for in-person interaction, work, and school. But a fight over Zoom’s right to censor speech is now brewing across the academic world, after the company shut down a seminar at San Francisco State University earlier this year over the participation of Palestinian activist Leila Khaled. Last month, Zoom continued its crackdown and canceled several online events organized at other universities that did not include Khaled herself but were critical of Zoom’s censorship of her.
Khaled, 76, is a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a resistance group and political party that the U.S. government lists as a foreign terrorist organization. She rose to prominence after her role in two plane hijackings in 1969 and 1970 — and as the first woman to hijack a plane she has since earned global recognition, regarded as a terrorist by some and a feminist icon by others. On September 23, Khaled, who has long spoken in solidarity with liberation movements worldwide, was one of several speakers set to participate in a seminar on gender and resistance narratives at SFSU, a public university. But the seminar became the target of a coordinated campaign by pro-Israel groups, which pressured both the university and Zoom to cancel it.
In response to the pressure, Zoom argued to SFSU officials that the seminar might have violated federal laws and therefore the company’s terms of service, by providing “material support” for terrorism. It ultimately canceled the event the day before it was scheduled to take place. Zoom’s actions were followed by Facebook, which removed the livestream link, as well as a page advertising the event, and threatened to shut down the pages of the event’s sponsors, and by YouTube, which shut down the livestream 23 minutes after the event had started. The New York Post reported last week that the U.S. Department of Education is now conducting a probe into SFSU’s invitation to Khaled, on the grounds that it “violated civil rights rules and the conditions of federal grants the university received.”
In October, Zoom also shut down three seminars organized in solidarity with SFSU at New York University, the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. At least eight other seminars that were part of the same day of action were allowed to proceed on the platform, and Khaled did speak, on October 3, on another Zoom seminar that was unaffiliated with a university.
For all Zoom’s invocations of anti-terrorism laws, a spokesperson also noted that ultimately the company reserves the right to bar anyone from using its services, for any reason or none at all.
Reached by email, Zoom spokesperson Andy Duberstein wrote that anyone was welcome to use the company’s platform so long as they didn’t run afoul of “applicable U.S. export control, sanctions, and anti-terrorism laws,” but declined to explain which anti-terrorism law would have applied, nor how the SFSU event would have violated it.
“In light of the speaker’s reported affiliation or membership in a U.S. designated foreign terrorist organization, and SFSU’s inability to confirm otherwise, we determined the meeting is in violation of Zoom’s Terms of Service and told SFSU they may not use Zoom for this particular event,” Duberstein wrote. But for all its invocations of anti-terrorism laws, Duberstein also noted that ultimately the company reserves the right to bar anyone from using its services, for any reason or none at all, pointing to a section of the company’s terms of service that states “Zoom may investigate any complaints and violations that come to its attention and may take any (or no) action that it believes is appropriate, including, but not limited to issuing warnings, removing the content or terminating accounts and/or User profiles.”
Google spokesperson Alex Joseph wrote in a statement that the company terminated the livestream “for violations of our policies on Violent Criminal Organizations.”
“Specifically, the livestream contained ‘content praising or justifying violent acts carried out by violent criminal or terrorist organizations,’” the spokesperson wrote. A spokesperson for Facebook said in a statement that the company “removed this content for violating our policy prohibiting praise, support and representation for dangerous organizations and individuals, which applies to Pages, content and Events.”
Zoom’s intervention adds a new layer to the long-running debate on university campuses over the Israeli occupation of Palestine, but its implications reach far beyond that, several scholars and free speech advocates warned. The platform’s censorship has raised questions about the role of private tech companies in curtailing academic freedom and constitutionally protected speech, particularly in the context of public universities. The incidents also reignited criticism of a controversial definition of anti-Semitism promoted by pro-Israel groups and endorsed by President Donald Trump in an executive order issued last year, which critics say severely limits all debate of Israeli policy.
At a time when the pandemic has seen much of university life move to private online platforms, many feared that Zoom’s censorship marked a slippery slope.
“There is no law requiring Zoom to block the event featuring Leila Khaled,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program. “Zoom’s actions, along with its later decision to block events on censorship by Zoom, show us once again that private companies who are not bound by free speech rules often use their discretion to selectively block voices. Terms of service are then used to present one-off business decisions as nothing more than the application of their rules.”
“It’s very dangerous for a third-party private vendor to be in the position of deciding what is legitimate academic speech and what is not — it violates all of the customs and norms of the academic culture,” echoed Andrew Ross, a professor at NYU and member of the American Association of University Professors. “This should concern everyone in higher education right now.”
The AAUP’s NYU chapter was among dozens of groups and hundreds of scholars to issue public condemnations of Zoom’s censorship, arguing in a statement that “if Zoom will not walk back its policy of canceling webinars featuring Palestinian speech and advocacy, college presidents should break their agreements with the company.” While SFSU officials publicly expressed their disagreement with Zoom, their response was far too timid, critics charged. And at the University of Leeds, officials have responded by opening an investigation into the event. “The universities effectively caved, failed to back their faculty, and failed to support academic freedom,” said Heike Schotten, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, which successfully held an event in solidarity with SFSU. “They have legal counsel, they have endowments, they have enormous power,” Schotten said. “They could influence Zoom to not be censoring their faculty. It’s a matter of political will.”
Bobby King, a spokesperson for SFSU President Lynn Mahoney, referred The Intercept to public statements she made on the incident. “President Mahoney has been a tireless proponent of academic freedom during her first year at San Francisco State University,” King added. “And she will continue that effort while also recognizing that academic freedom may also lead to difficult interactions and conversations.”
Gareth Dant, a spokesperson for the University of Leeds, wrote in an email that “the University is committed to promoting and positively encouraging free debate, enquiry and protest within the requirements placed on it by the law. It tolerates a wide range of views even when they are unpopular, controversial or provocative. Indeed the University has never banned an event or speaker because of the subject matter and it hosts a broad range of debates and speeches on a wide range of subjects.”
Dan Meisenzahl, a spokesperson for the University of Hawaii, said in a statement that the university was disappointed at Zoom’s cancellation and disagreed with the company’s decision. “Academic freedom and the ability to engage in the free expression of diverse and complex viewpoints form the very foundation of higher education,” Meisenzahl wrote.
NYU did not respond to a request for comment.
While consistent with longstanding efforts to control narratives about Palestine, Zoom’s cancellation of the SFSU seminar also marked a notable escalation in the fight over campus speech because it argued not so much that the event was offensive as that it was criminal — and specifically in violation of federal anti-terrorism laws. While several legal experts dismissed the claim as baseless, the invocation of anti-terrorism laws worried civil rights advocates, particularly given the current political moment, which has seen the Trump administration slap a “terrorist” label on activist movements from Black Lives Matter to antifa.
“This is an illustration of efforts to further expand already deeply, deeply problematic laws that criminalize advocacy as material support for terrorism,” said Dima Khalidi, director of Palestine Legal, a group that fights efforts to legally harass pro-Palestine activists. “In a case like this, where it’s really pure speech at issue, if this is interpreted to constitute material support for terrorism, we are in trouble. … You can see where this can lead us.”
“You Will Be Canceled”
In mid-September, about a week before the SFSU seminar was to take place, an attorney from the Lawfare Project, a pro-Israel legal advocacy group, sent a letter to Zoom’s founder and CEO Eric Yuan. The group, which funds legal actions challenging criticism of Israel, warned Zoom about the upcoming event and argued that Khaled’s participation in it “may give rise to violations” of federal law and incur fines or imprisonment of up to 20 years. “The mere facts that Khaled is member of a designated foreign terrorist organization and is being provided with a platform on which to speak can give rise to a violation,” the attorney wrote, “even if she chooses to speak about a topic completely unrelated to terrorism.” The Lawfare Project also notified the U.S. Department of Justice about the event.
Legal scholars The Intercept spoke with argued that the invocation of federal anti-terrorism law was an overreach.
Patel, of the Brennan Center, explained that the stance is based on a flawed application of laws proscribing “material support” to terrorist groups, a controversial and constitutionally murky provision of federal anti-terror law that criminalizes certain forms of loosely defined aid or advocacy for designated foreign terrorist organizations. “The fact that Khaled is associated with a group that is on the FTO list does not mean that laws prohibiting material support for terrorism kick in,” Patel said, noting a Supreme Court ruling that only material support that is “coordinated with or under the direction of” a foreign terrorist organization is prohibited. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had nothing to do with Khaled’s planned participation in the SFSU seminar.
The left-wing PFLP was founded in 1967 as a nationalist, secular organization and militant group fighting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The group was behind a number of hijackings of civilian airliners in the 1960s and 1970s, and individuals associated with it have been behind assassinations and other attacks in more recent decades. The PFLP was at one point the second largest faction within the Palestine Liberation Organization, but its political influence dwindled in the 1990s with the fall of its Soviet patrons and the Oslo Accords. Khaled was arrested by British police following the 1970 hijacking, in which a fellow hijacker but no passengers were killed, and she was released shortly afterward in a hostage exchange. She has since served as a member of the Palestinian National Council, the parliamentary body of the PLO, which, unlike the Palestinian Authority, represents Palestinians both inside the occupied territories and in the diaspora.
“It is more than a stretch to say that Khaled’s 1970s association with PFLP meant that a virtual talk by her decades later could be regarded as violating the law,” Patel said. “Such an overbroad interpretation of the law would almost certainly be unconstitutional.”
“It is more than a stretch to say that Khaled’s 1970s association with PFLP meant that a virtual talk by her decades later could be regarded as violating the law.”
In a statement to The Intercept, Gerard Filitti, senior counsel at the Lawfare Project, defended the group’s legal claim, arguing that the SFSU seminar did constitute coordination with a foreign terrorist group because extending an invitation to Khaled was tantamount to plotting with the PFLP itself: “Webinars do not occur ‘organically’ — they require coordination and planning in advance of the event.”
“SFSU’s use of its videoconferencing platforms — and its professors moderating the webinar — provides precisely the kind of legitimacy to PFLP that makes it easier for it to persist, recruit members, and raise funds,” Filitti wrote. “It is important to note that the issue here is not one of freedom of speech or ‘academic freedom,’ but rather about criminal action — namely material support to an FTO.”
Days after the Lawfare Project’s letter, Zoom’s chief compliance and ethics officer, Lynn Haaland, repeated the group’s argument in a letter to SFSU and the trustees of the California State University system, adding that according to Zoom’s terms of service, users agree not to use Zoom’s services “in any manner that violates applicable law.” Should users violate the terms, Haaland warned, Zoom reserved the right to take action, “including potential disclosure to relevant government authorities, termination of violating meetings while in progress, termination of the Trustees’ account and termination of the use of Zoom services.”
Zoom’s letter initiated a back and forth between Haaland and California State University’s deputy general counsel, Leora Freedman, obtained by The Intercept via a public records request. In her responses, Freedman initially wrote that the university was “unable to confirm” Khaled’s membership in the PFLP. She added that because of the pandemic, “nearly all” instruction for more than 480,000 California State University students was being held virtually. “We are very grateful to Zoom for its important role in this achievement,” Freedman wrote. When Haaland noted that Khaled had publicly acknowledged her affiliation with the PFLP in the past, Freedman wrote that the university “respectfully disagrees” with Zoom’s position that her participation would violate federal law.
But while pushing back against Zoom’s arguments, SFSU seemed to have resigned itself to give in. University officials notified the professors who had organized the seminar about Zoom’s plans to cancel it and recommended they seek legal representation. “As I hope you understand, the University vigilantly protects academic freedom and freedom of expression to the greatest extent possible under the law,” SFSU’s provost Jennifer Summit wrote to professors Rabab Abdulhadi and Tomomi Kinukawa. “The rights of academic freedom and free expression, however, have legal limits.”
Abdulhadi and Kinukawa said that the university had effectively abandoned them and that it had abdicated its responsibility to defend academic freedom and the rights of their students. They saw school officials’ communications with them, stressing the potential criminality of the event, as an effort to silence them.
“She basically said that we should look it up and find a good lawyer,” Kinukawa said, referring to the provost. “It’s a scare tactic.”
Through an attorney, the professors replied that they were aware of material support for terrorism laws and that they did not believe they were violating them. Khaled was not getting paid to speak, and she planned to participate in the seminar in a personal capacity, not as a representative of the PFLP. “Faculty members such as Professors Abdulhadi and Kinukawa and others who speak up in support of the rights of the Palestinian people are constantly under attack from Lawfare and other organizations that do everything possible to crush any opposition to the policies of the State of Israel,” Abdulhadi’s attorney, Dan Siegel, wrote to the provost. “We appreciate and expect San Francisco State University to uphold the rights of faculty against such attacks.”
Abdulhadi, a Palestinian professor who for years has been the target of harassment and legal campaigns because of her outspoken criticism of Israel, argued that the university did nothing to ensure that the event could take place and failed to provide an alternative platform to stream the event. More than 1,500 people had registered for the Zoom seminar, and 4,000 had expressed their interest in it on Facebook. Abdulhadi also took issue with the participation of Mahoney, the university president, at an online vigil held by the San Francisco Hillel and co-sponsored by two university offices in protest of the seminar.
In internal meetings, SFSU faculty expressed concerns with Zoom’s censorship. “It could completely derail our remote teaching,” Jonathon Stillman, a member of the university’s academic senate, said in a meeting. Krystle Pierce, another member, noted concern that the university was showing support for the Hillel vigil but not the canceled seminar. King, the spokesperson for Mahoney, said in a statement that “while the president remains steadfast in her support for the rights of faculty to teach and conduct their scholarship free from interference, she also made it quite clear that she condemns violence, especially against unarmed civilians. Her participation in a vigil reflected that.”
“She also has reached out to and met with students who felt silenced by Zoom’s cancellation of the event,” King added. “President Mahoney is equally concerned with the social media attacks experienced by many students and faculty engaged in activism, teaching and research related to the Middle East.”
In other administrative meetings, members asked about any recourse available to the university, but SFSU has not indicated that it plans to pursue a remedy. In a statement following the event’s cancellation, the Lawfare Project proclaimed victory and promised more public pressure campaigns against what it claimed was “Jew hatred.”
“All communications platforms have been put on notice: block terrorism and cancel anti-Semitism, or you will be canceled,” the group wrote.
The cancellation sparked an intense backlash at SFSU and across the academic world. On October 23, a month after the original seminar was scheduled to take place, faculty and students at a dozen different universities planned to hold a series of events in solidarity with SFSU, playing prerecorded videos of Khaled speaking and discussing academic freedom. Organizers specifically called for the events to be held on Zoom, with additional streams on other social media platforms. Many of those events went ahead as planned. But Zoom shut down three of them.
After their event was canceled, University of Hawaii students and faculty posted a video in which they read Khaled’s words in their own voices. “The UH administration has done nothing to protect our rights of free speech and academic freedom,” Cynthia Franklin, a professor there, wrote in an email. “We and the students and community members who made this video do so with awareness that it is our voices that could be censored next.”
Adam Saeed, a student at the University of Leeds, had organized an event through the Palestine Solidarity Group, a student group he co-chairs there. But the day after he publicized the event on the group’s Facebook page, he received an email from the university’s student union, which administers student groups’ activities, warning him that the event had not been approved. “There are genuine pressures on the student union not to platform any Palestinian voices,” Saeed said, noting that the group regularly faces pushback for its activities. “They will use the term terrorism against anyone who talks about Palestinians’ human rights.” Dant, the spokesperson for the university and the student union, wrote in an email that the university’s “approach to freedom of expression extends to all, regardless of any political — or other — stance they take.” Dant added that the event was denied permission because the organizers had not followed the required protocol or given sufficient notice about the existence of an external speaker. But Saeed said that there were no external speakers, as Khaled did not directly participate in the seminar, and the only other speaker was a member of the university’s own faculty.
Saeed scheduled the event anyway, using his personal Zoom account, but just over an hour before the event was to start, he received an automated email from Zoom notifying him that he had “successfully deleted” the event, which he had not. His account had been disabled. Saeed then reached out to a group unaffiliated with the university, Apartheid Off Campus, and moved the event over to its Zoom and Facebook accounts. To avoid Zoom’s detection, he changed the event’s name from “We will not be silenced with Leila Khaled” to “meeting.”
He also emailed Zoom to demand an explanation but never heard back, though his account was reactivated a few days later. “It is absolutely a horrible thing how much control they actually have over our freedom to communicate with each other,” he said. “All this authority is given to this shadowy institution of Zoom, which is this ultimate deciding power about what can be said and cannot be said.”
He received an automated email from Zoom notifying him that he had “successfully deleted” the event, which he had not. His account had been disabled.
On the day of NYU’s event, Ross realized that the link had been deactivated — which didn’t surprise him, although nobody from the administration had heard from Zoom about the company’s intention to cancel it. At the last minute, the university switched the seminar to Google Meet, but that event was immediately disrupted by trolls shouting racist and sexist insults. “My tech assistant thinks they were bots,” said Ross. “And we do know that organized Zionist groups who are the people who put pressure on institutions, they do use bots to circulate misinformation.” Organizers ultimately held the event privately and later posted a recording of it. In a letter to the university’s AAUP chapter and other faculty, NYU President Andrew Hamilton wrote, “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.” But Hamilton also defended Zoom’s decision: “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,” Hamilton added. “It is at odds with values that universities hold dear: reason, dispassion, freedom of speech and inquiry, respect for individuals and individual liberties.”
In their response, the faculty noted their disappointment that the university was not providing any “safeguards” against future shutdowns. “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,” they wrote. The professors also took issue with Hamilton’s statement that terrorist violence conflicts with academic freedom. “Why is that the lesson to be drawn from the censorship of this event?” they wrote. “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.”
Duberstein, Zoom’s spokesperson, told The Intercept that the company shut down the three events because organizers there had written in the event descriptions “that Ms. Khaled would appear in some capacity,” he wrote. Some of the events were advertised on social media as “featuring Leila Khaled,” although a description of the day of action made clear that Khaled would not be appearing in person but rather that the seminars would include a “message” from her. Duberstein did not clarify whether the company would also consider a pre-recorded message by Khaled, or a video of her speaking elsewhere, a violation of its terms.
The faculty behind the initiative believe that Zoom responded to complaints about individual events filed by pro-Israel groups, which have a stronger presence on some campuses than others. “What Zoom is saying now is that it doesn’t go around monitoring content and that it’s not its job as an internet platform provider,” said Schotten of UMass. “But if they receive complaints, they investigate them, and that’s why you see this happening to certain webinars and not others. In some places, the Zionists are more organized and more entrenched.”
Zoom’s move to abruptly block an individual from using its platform in response to angry complaints reflects its coming out as an influential American technology firm. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google have for many years failed to create a consistent set of rules determining what kinds of activities are permitted and what are beyond the pale. And just like the more established Silicon Valley stalwarts, Zoom’s action here seems to reflect public relations angst more than any kind of coherent content moderation framework or sound legal rationale.
In the absence of a clear, transparent rulebook that can be applied equitably across ideologies, tech giants have improvised their content moderation policies in response to outrage from one party or another, gesturing vaguely to their respective terms of service as justification. But while Facebook and Twitter have been pummeled in the court of public opinion for failing to stop violent extremists from spreading their messages, attempts to hold them criminally liable under the “material support” clause cited by Zoom have been tossed out of actual courts time and time again.
“That these private companies have the power of censorship over classrooms at public universities is really troubling,” said Khalidi of Palestine Legal. “There are interesting legal questions here and the potential to really interrogate the role that these massive social media companies are playing in our public life.”
Palestine discourse has long been a target of free speech battles on university campuses and beyond. Students and faculty speaking in support of the rights of Palestinians or criticizing Israeli policies have faced a slew of intimidation tactics, including online blacklists, lawsuits, and legislative efforts to silence boycott campaigns.
These initiatives are often run by well-funded and secretive organizations — part of a broader effort to influence campus discourse through a diversified network of political mobilization groups and student publications. Many of these groups, promoting a host of conservative and libertarian causes, appear to be independent but, in fact, work in coordination, noted Isaac Kamola, an assistant professor at Trinity College who studies the impact of dark money on campus speech issues.
“There’s an infrastructure that’s in place,” he said in an interview. “And there are certain elements of these donors’ networks that are deeply involved in Israel-Palestine issues, in pushing back against especially Palestinian activists on campus.”
Well-funded, pro-Israel groups are also behind campaigns to pressure Facebook and other social media companies to censor Palestine content on their platforms. Over the past several years, both Twitter and Facebook have suspended accounts belonging to Palestinian journalists, with the latter later claiming that the suspensions had been an “error.” A 2016 New York Times report noted that “Israeli security agencies monitor Facebook and send the company posts they consider incitement. Facebook has responded by removing most of them.”
“There is a massive amount of harassment of Palestine supporters,” said Khalidi. “It’s intended to shield Israel from criticism, to prevent people from understanding what Israel does.”
Lawsuits in particular, even when bringing questionable claims, have proven to be an efficient tool for stifling criticism of Israel because of the resources and time they consume. The American Studies Association, for instance, was sued in 2016 over its endorsement of a boycott of Israeli universities, before a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit last year. “They just tied people up for several years in litigation, and that was the intention,” said Ross, who is a member of the association. “They specialize in launching lawsuits that are frivolous but are intended to provide a lot of anguish for those who are targeted. The point of [groups like Lawfare] is really to exhaust its victims and wear them down.” While Zoom did not shut down all events in solidarity with Khaled last month, faculty who organized some of them are already bracing for legal harassment. Schotten noted that after the event, her university received a request for records by the Zionist Advocacy Center, a group that has filed a series of mostly failed lawsuits against Israel critics. “Their reason for existence is to sue universities,” she said.
NYU reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Education last month, after the university was sued over charges that it did not do enough to prevent a “hostile environment” for Jewish students on campus. As part of the settlement, NYU acknowledged no wrongdoing but committed to partially adopting a definition of anti-Semitism that is held by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association. The sweeping definition was adopted by a number of countries, local governments, and public institutions, and endorsed by the Trump administration in a 2019 executive order, which tied federal funding for universities to adherence to this expanded concept of anti-Semitism. NYU was the first university to be sued following the executive order endorsing the IHRA definition, which lists among examples of “contemporary” anti-Semitism the position that the state of Israel is “a racist endeavor.”
“There is a massive amount of harassment of Palestine supporters. It’s intended to shield Israel from criticism, to prevent people from understanding what Israel does.”
“It is a highly controversial definition because they more or less treat all criticism of Israeli policy as an example of anti-Semitism,” said Ross. “That’s a huge problem for a lot of institutions, but it hasn’t stopped many of them from adopting that definition under pressure, for fear of being branded anti-Semitic themselves.”
In other cases, the silencing campaigns have focused aggressively on some outspoken faculty. Abdulhadi, for instance, has faced years of attacks while teaching at SFSU’s Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Initiative, including accusations that she “glorifies terrorism” and is a “Hamas supporter.” Flyers were posted around campus calling her a “Jew hater,” and she has received torrents of abusive emails and several death threats, including voicemails, as well as an anonymous letter warning her to be careful about her personal safety. “Careful when crossing intersections, careful when walking alone at night,” said the letter, “accidents will happen.”
The harassment has also been institutionalized: Abdulhadi saw her program’s budget and classes cut in response to Zionist groups’ pressure campaigns against her, and an exchange with a Palestinian university and academic delegations to Palestine canceled on the grounds that she was meeting with “terrorists,” she said. Zionist groups advocated for an academic award she received to be rescinded. And in 2017, the Lawfare Project sued her, SFSU, and the California State University system, among others, accusing Abdulhadi of promoting anti-Semitism and unfavorably grading students who espoused Zionist views. A federal judge dismissed that lawsuit with prejudice in 2018. Critics also filed a complaint with the Department of Education against UCLA, after Abdulhadi gave a lecture there in which she compared Zionism to white supremacy.
Abdulhadi told The Intercept that the relentless attacks have been a response to her efforts to build a university program about Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim experiences. “They did not want to institutionalize that,” she said.
“I have been subjected to these attacks for 13 years,” she added, noting that SFSU has consistently failed to support her. “They are basically trying to push me out because I keep speaking up.”
Speech v. Terrorism
Growing up as a Palestinian woman living under Israeli occupation, Abdulhadi had deep admiration for Khaled long before meeting her. “All of us wanted to be Leila Khaled; none of us wanted to be housewives,” she said. Abdulhadi said that even though the canceled seminar was about feminist narratives, Khaled welcomed challenges to her role in the hijackings and difficult questions about valid means of resistance. “I think that was something that they did not want people to see,” said Abdulhadi. “It was very important not to let people get exposed to her because then people will say, ‘Oh my God, we need to rethink everything. We need to revise all the narratives about Palestine that we have.’”
Saeed, the University of Leeds student, who is also Palestinian, called Khaled an “inspiration” and the “unapologetic face of the Palestinian struggle.”
“She’s painted as this nonsensical, violent, radical extremist, but no one talks about where is she from, what is her history, what is the history of the Palestinian people,” he said. “Palestinians are not allowed to speak about how they feel.”
Regardless of Khaled’s political affiliation, scholars argue that the ability to freely discuss complex subjects like political violence is essential to academic freedom.
Regardless of Khaled’s political affiliation, scholars argue that the ability to freely discuss complex subjects like political violence is essential to academic freedom. “Having her speak in a class at a university is a perfectly legitimate event,” said Ross, adding that scholars of terrorism routinely reference content by alleged terrorists as part of their instruction. “This appeal to federal law was really baseless.”
Legal scholars agreed. “I think Zoom has taken a very far-reaching and broad interpretation of the material support provisions — broader than, as far as I am aware, any court has interpreted it,” said David Greene, civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
“Any attempt by the government to restrict academic freedom in this manner would undoubtedly violate the First Amendment,” said Brian Hauss, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
But the debate over Khaled has also reignited a broader, long-running one over the notion of terrorism itself, the charged and shifting meanings attributed to the word, and the question of whose prerogative it is to label someone a “terrorist” in the first place. Ross pointed to the example of Nelson Mandela, the late South African president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, and his association with the African National Congress, a political party which the U.S. listed as a foreign terrorist organization until 2008, “long after Mandela was widely lauded as a hero in this country.”
Schotten, who has written about terrorism in her scholarship, argued that the word “terrorist” functions as a slur. “Accusations of ‘terrorism’ remain among the most powerful silencing tools that exists in U.S. public discourse; it’s such a powerfully racist term that has a whole set of unconscious associations,” she said. “It’s very strategically smart that Zionists have seized upon that.”
Still, while critics of pro-Palestinian scholars have long accused them of sympathizing with terrorists, Zoom’s argument that academic speech was in violation of anti-terrorism laws marks a significant escalation in the targeting of campus debate. The material support for terrorism law has been criticized in the past as overbroad and racist. But Zoom’s interpretation expands the law’s impact even further, criminalizing speech and academic discourse.
“Zoom’s capitulation here is a terrible precedent for academic freedom,” said Khalidi. “If we allow this to stand, I think it will embolden certainly pro-Israel groups to make these kinds of accusations and complaints against what’s happening in our classrooms. But it also probably will embolden other groups.”