– Can Zoom Decide What May Be Said On College Campuses?
With the COVID pandemic still raging it is unclear when colleges will be able to return to mostly in-person instruction and in-person public events. They remain dependent on Zoom for now.
This gives Zoom remarkable power to decide what students and professors can effectively say. A story in today’s New York Times highlights how broad and unaccountable that power is.
Last semester, a New York University Webinar hosted Leila Khaled, whom the Times describes as “a two-time hijacker, a member of a Palestinian group on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.” The professor conducting the webinar praised her as a “role model” even as she endorsed “all means of struggle, including armed struggle” against Israel.
Zoom decided that carrying the webinar might expose it to charges that it was supporting terrorism. It canceled the link, which prevents anyone from viewing the webinar.
I have written many posts decrying the surge of anti-Semitism on college campuses, the blindness of the left when it comes to anti-Semitism, and the ways that one-sided condemnation of Israel fosters that anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, the power of an unaccountable private corporation to decide what can be said in a university webinar is deeply disturbing.
Imagine if a wealthy donor successfully demanded that a college cancel a speaker. The job of a university is to expose students and the public to diverse viewpoints. If a powerful private corporation has the power to cut off a speaker’s access to the public because it doesn’t like the speaker or fears that others won’t like it, that is a dagger through the heart of academic freedom.
Under the first amendment, even speech advocating armed struggle is protected in the vast majority of cases. While the Constitution does not technically apply to private universities, academic freedom means that students and professors should be able to speak their minds if they are not breaking the law. One can argue about whether hosting a hate-mongerer like Leila Khalid crosses the line, but granting Zoom or other tech giants the unrestricted power to decide where to draw that line threatens the core mission of universities.
Demonizing Israel has become a shibboleth of the left and it is a shame that NYU is lending the university’s prestige to yet more hate-mongering against it. And the left’s cries of censorship are hypocritical. The left adores censorship of conservative speakers. In the publishing world, one conservative Senator’s book contract has been canceled while the Times fired a top editor merely for publishing an editorial by another conservative Senator. Twitter canceled Donald Trump’s account while he was still president, but not the account of Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has explicitly called for the murder of a British-American author for criticizing the prophet Mohamed. I have written post after post about people getting fired for things like having once opposed female fighter pilots over thirty years ago or for questioning whether George Floyd was killed because of his race.
But two wrongs don’t make a right. Private corporations cannot be allowed to decide what guests professors may bring to their seminars. The best response to a hateful speaker like Leila Khalid is for another professor to host a seminar explaining all the reasons that she is wrong. Censorship can’t stop anti-Semitism. It will only feed the shared narrative of the far-right and far-left that Jews exert too much power over the media.
Zoom should not be deciding class content any more than UPS or Fed Ex should be deciding what books people can send one another. Universities need to press Zoom to respect freedom of speech and academic freedom.