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Global classrooms, authoritarianism without borders: The new era of campus speech suppression

With students vacating college campuses for much of last year during the Covid-19 panic, one might suspect a brief respite in speech-policing affecting students.

But the pandemic instead brought entirely new challenges, particularly students speaking in class via Zoom and other online video methods that could be monitored by foreign governments. In some cases, the Chinese government – buttressed by a relatively new law meant to punish dissidents – were able to view classroom discussions and identify students or professors who spoke critically of the Chinese Communist Party.

Over at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Sarah McLaughlin has the details:

When campuses scrambled to continue classes last spring while COVID-19 spread rapidly in the United States, many universities joined other industries in turning to video communication services, Zoom especially. For its part, Zoom encouraged academia’s use of its service. The company’s website boasts that more than 10,000 schools use Zoom and shares glowing testimonials from universities.

But it did not take long for activists and dissidents to warn that the biggest concerns about Zoom might not be distracting virtual backgrounds or pets interrupting meetings. In June, Zoom admitted that, in accordance with requests from Chinese officials, the company had closed accounts of a handful of users located outside of mainland China after they hosted events commemorating victims of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In a statement, the company wrote: “Just like any global company, we must comply with applicable laws in the jurisdictions where we operate. When a meeting is held across different countries, the participants within those countries are required to comply with their respective local laws.”

To make things worse, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement threatened to send foreign students home if classes at their school were being offered solely online during the pandemic. That would have meant sending many students back to regimes in their homelands that punish free speech with prison sentences.

Further, Zoom came under pressure to cancel several talks by controversial figures on campus, demonstrating the power technology companies have to regulate speech:

However, it would be a mistake to assume that China is the only weight pressing on Zoom executives’ minds. This September, Zoom acceeded to demands to cancel two San Francisco State University faculty members’ video discussion with Leila Khaled and questionably cited federal statutes prohibiting material support for terrorism in the cancellation. Khaled is known for being the first woman to hijack an airplane, and did so in support of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Like dominoes, other events featuring Khaled or about Zoom’s ban against her were quickly canceled by Zoom at other universities.

While Khaled is an unsympathetic figure to many — targets of censorship often are — Zoom’s heavy-handed decision sounded the alarm that these services could be a new weak point for academic freedom. As the content of college classroom teachings or reading material continues to be an attractive target for political figures across the political spectrum, it is too easy to imagine Zoom fielding increasingly frequent calls to shut down academic debates and classroom events about other hot-button issues like race, religion, or gender.

Svetlana Mintcheva, Director of Programs at NCAC, explained, “When a private company controls the virtual space in which University classes and meetings are conducted and that company decides to refuse its platform to an academic program because of the viewpoints to be expressed in it, principles of academic freedom are in peril.”

Read the whole thing here.

MORE: Chinese national security law prompts American colleges to protect students’ identities

IMAGE: Motortion Films / Shutterstock

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