Silicon Valley tech companies have once again blocked a live-streamed event featuring anti-apartheid activists, including Palestinian resistance icon Leila Khaled and South Africa’s former ANC military leader Ronnie Kasrils.
The University of California at Merced event, “Whose Narratives? What Free Speech for Palestine?,” was organized to discuss ongoing attacks on critics of Israel in academia and the dangers of censorship.It was shut down by video conferencing platformers Zoom, Facebook and YouTube days before the 23 April panel. The event management platform Eventbrite also pulled the publicity page from its website.
Earlier in April, Facebook deleted the entire account page of San Francisco State University’s (SFSU) Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas program, a co-sponsor of the event.
Facebook claimed that content posted to the event page violated its “community standards.”
The page has not been restored.The 23 April event was due to take place exactly seven months after Zoom, Facebook and YouTube blocked the same panelists from speaking at San Francisco State University, part of the California State University system which is separate from the University of California.
Organizers of the panel say that students and activists were looking forward to hearing from Khaled and Kasrils, in conversation with US activists and former political prisoners Sekou Odinga and Laura Whitehorn, and scholar Rula Abu Dahou, director of the women’s studies institute at Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank.
Last fall, Zoom shut down other planned events with Khaled in the US and UK. Ironically, those censored talks intended to discuss Zoom’s censorship of the initial September panel.
Israel lobby groups have tried to convince universities and the tech companies that hosting Khaled, who is in her seventies and lives in Jordan, would constitute “material support” to US-designated “terrorists” – even though she was not being compensated for her involvement in the webinars and has not been involved in any armed resistance activities in decades.
Palestine Legal and other law organizations warned Zoom last October that the company’s actions “are a dangerous attack on free speech and academic freedom, and an abuse of your contract with our public university systems.”
Its status as an essential public service, they added, “does not give you veto power over the content of the nation’s classrooms and public events.”
In an effort to prepare for possible interference by the streaming platforms, UC Merced professor Sean L. Malloy had worked with administrators and faculty colleagues to preemptively search for alternative online venues.
“The answer I had received across the board is, we don’t have any streaming alternatives and that we are reliant as a university for streaming on Zoom [and] on YouTube,” he told The Electronic Intifada.
Malloy was one of the event’s moderators.
“If that is true, that the university absolutely cannot stream anything without the cooperation of private corporations, or if they profess to support this event but are unwilling to offer us an alternative platform, that is troubling,” he added.
In communications with the university’s legal department, Malloy explained that the administration had initially been supportive of the event going forward, and had understood that it carried a low legal risk.
Michael T. Brown, the University of California’s provost and vice president of academic affairs, had written to UC faculty in December, promising them that Zoom was taking their concerns of potential violations of academic freedom “seriously.”
Brown added that former University of California president Janet Napolitano had been appointed to Zoom’s board of directors – ostensibly to assure faculty that Napolitano will tell Zoom that “censorship is not consistent with the values of the University of California.”
Napolitano, who was appointed by the Obama administration as Homeland Security secretary and oversaw the deportations of undocumented persons in record-setting numbers, has been “sympathetic” to anti-Palestinian lobby groups which have long tried to smear and censor advocates for Palestinian rights on California campuses.
In his letter, the UC Provost said the administration “confirmed that Zoom does not monitor use of its platform by participating in public or private events, including classes, events, or protests hosted on its platform.”
Malloy said that the University of California had offered to file a pre-enforcement action against the material support law in federal court in order to challenge its constitutionality.
But the university chose to take a different approach before any legal move could be made.
Instead of defending the right of the academic panel to proceed, UC Merced’s administration publicized a counter-programming seminar on anti-Jewish bigotry and “principles of community,” to take place around the same time that the panel was scheduled.
“It echoed what the president of San Francisco State University did,” Rabab Abdulhadi, director of the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas program at SFSU, told The Electronic Intifada.
Hours after the September event was canceled by Zoom, Facebook and YouTube, SFSU President Lynn Mahoney spoke at a counter event organized by Hillel, an explicitly Zionist organization on campus, to honor “victims of terror.”
That event was co-sponsored by the Israeli consulate and several major Israel advocacy groups, along with the university.
Abdulhadi told The Electronic Intifada that California State University and SFSU had then “accepted Zoom’s control over the curriculum, and now the UC has accepted it.”
“We hoped it would be different,” she added.
“It does not absolve the private tech companies, but our administrations are obligated to facilitate the curriculum – not uphold the censorship of it.”