After outrage over event with Palestinian terrorist, Zoom allows more ‘academic freedom’

Amid uproar over planned SFSU event with Leila Khaled, Zoom changes policy to give universities more control.

By Sharon Wrobel, The Algemeiner

Zoom has introduced a new policy on “academic freedom” for higher education users, which will limit its interference in the shutdown of controversial virtual events hosted on its video conferencing platform.

The move comes as Eventbrite last week decided to remove a San Francisco State University-sponsored event on April 23 featuring Leila Khaled — a member of US-designated terrorist organization Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) – from its platform, as it violates the event management platform’s terms of service.

The new policy, which according to the education outlet Higher Ed Dive was announced in recent days, states that “for Zoom meetings and webinars hosted by a higher education institution, the Trust and Safety team will only act on reports alleging content-related violations of our Community Standards or Terms of Service that come from the meeting’s host or the account’s owners or administrators.”

It said that exceptions to this policy will include only cases where Zoom sees “legal or regulatory risk, [..] an immediate threat to the physical safety of any person; or the meeting or webinar is unrelated to the institution’s academics or operations.”

Additionally, Zoom will consult with universities before taking any action on complaints about violations of its terms of service.

The policy change comes after the American Association of University Professors raised concerns about the decisions by several media platforms, including Zoom, to cancel a Sept. 2020 event at SFSU featuring Khaled and other political events and academic discussions at other institutions.

The advocacy group also urged New York University president Andrew Hamilton to “address Zoom censorship.”

“I have been meeting with Zoom’s lawyers, UC’s [University of California] lawyers, and law and tech people at several other schools to develop a policy that would get Zoom out of the business of deciding whether classes, talks, student events etc. comply with Zoom’s standard terms of service,” Brian Soucek, Chairman of the University of California Committee on Academic Freedom (UCAF), wrote in a tweet. “Yesterday, the operations of my whole university (and probably yours) were subject to content regulation by a private company. Today they largely aren’t.”

Brooke Goldstein, Executive Director of The Lawfare Project said that Zoom’s new policy statement “does not absolve it of its responsibility to comply with federal law that prohibits providing material support to Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs).”

“Neither Zoom nor higher education institutions have the right to provide services to terrorist organizations — especially when they have been clearly designated as such by the US government. Moreover, Zoom’s Terms of Service continue to expressly prohibit use of its services in contravention of anti-terrorism laws,” Goldstein told The Algemeiner by email.

“‘Academic freedom’ cannot be used as a catchphrase with which to violate federal law, and we continue to expect that Zoom will comply with the law and not allow its platform to be used to provide services to designated FTOs like the PFLP,” she said. “Providing a communications platform is not speech — it is conduct forbidden by law. Zoom would be wrong to assume there is no political will for enforcement of criminal law. There is a long statute of limitation on criminal support for terror, and if one administration doesn’t enforce the law another may.”

At writing, Zoom was still the online conference platform for the April 23 event titled, “Whose Narratives? What Free Speech for Palestine?”, which is co-sponsored by the SFSU’s Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diaspora Studies program and the University of California Humanities Research Institute, hosting Khaled as a speaker.

Khaled played a pivotal role in two airplane hijackings in 1969 and 1970 as a member of the PFLP, and she is considered by the Israeli Shin Bet intelligence agency to be part of the present Jordanian command of the organization.

The terrorist group — which is founded on a Marxist-Leninist ideology and has been involved in suicide bombings, shootings, and assassinations, among other terrorist attacks — is dedicated to the removal of Western “imperialism” and capitalism from the Middle East to create a “democratic Palestine.”

Asked about the April 23 event, a Zoom spokesperson told The Algemeiner last week that the company was “reviewing the facts of this event to determine if it is consistent with our Terms of Service and Community Standards and will decide on an appropriate course of action after that review.”

“SF Hillel believes this program is problematic and encourages all who are facilitating it, including universities and technology platforms, to assess whether this is an appropriate and productive use of resources,” Rachel Nilson Ralston, Executive Director at SF Hillel, told The Algemeiner by email. “SF Hillel expressed alarm about this speaker before Zoom and other companies intervened in September 2020, and our position remains unchanged. We believe it’s important, and possible, for our universities to call for academic responsibility while upholding academic freedom. Recent and historical events demonstrate the dangers of platforming and normalizing violent rhetoric, and we will continue to oppose actions and speech that target and marginalize Jewish and Zionist students.”