Seven months to the day after being booted unceremoniously from multiple online platforms on September 23, Leila Khaled, a notorious terrorist leader and Che Guevara-like pop icon, was again prevented from speaking virtually at a California public university-sponsored event.
Professors at San Francisco State University (SFSU), sponsor of the failed event last autumn, co-sponsored Khaled's April 23 appearance. SFSU's long history of consorting with terrorists and extremists made it a natural player for a second attempt. This time, however, SFSU roped the University of California at Merced—which enjoys a much cleaner public record—into hosting Khaled via its Zoom account.
But, to the dismay of Khaled's academic supporters, the event was also stopped by online platforms concerned that hosting her would violate their terms of service and potentially violate the law. Strike two for SFSU, and perhaps a lesson learned from the more reputation-conscious UC Merced.
SFSU's first attempt to host Khaled online ended in a cascade of cancellations, with multiple platforms including Zoom, Facebook, and YouTube pulling out thanks to Khaled's current leadership in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a US-designated terrorist group. Given that such events pose sensitive political and legal issues for universities, as well as host platforms, and entail ongoing controversies, how this second removal played out matters.
Proponents of events featuring Khaled (or potentially other terrorists) can be divided into two camps. The first is represented by radical academics such as Professor Rahab Abdulhadi of SFSU, the apparent mastermind of both canceled events, whose support stems from her chauvinistic Palestinian nationalism and her venomous rejection of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. The second includes organizations such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), whose support rests on its convictions regarding free speech under the principles of the First Amendment and academic freedom.
Opponents who pushed for the digital platforms and the universities to cancel these events, including the Lawfare Project, a group concerned with defending Jewish civil rights, and Congressman Doug Lamborn (R-CO), who has written a series of letters decrying these events, are less concerned with Abdulhadi's extremism. They know the vast majority of Americans and even most university administrators reject these views. Rather, they focus on the second set of issues, namely the First Amendment and academic freedom.
Both Rep. Lamborn and the Lawfare Project make two related but separate points: Khaled's continued leadership in a terrorist group makes the events in question illegal under laws banning material support for terrorism, and there is no legitimate First Amendment claim that could override these laws.
Neither the First Amendment nor the principles of academic freedom justify giving terrorists a platform.
In this view, the problem isn't Khaled's ideas or policies, violent and hateful as they may be, but her ongoing activity with a terrorist group. Neither the First Amendment nor the principles of academic freedom justify giving a terrorist operative a platform in service of their violent cause. Opponents of Khaled's latest appearance made the same arguments against giving her a digital platform last September.
Zoom originally hinted it might backtrack from its September stance, putting out a new policy pledging support for academic freedom in response to their "higher education users [who] wanted to know where we stood." This was clearly related to blowback from the cancelation of the September event, and was seen as such. FIRE's Sarah McLaughlin said, "It would not surprise me if the potential loss of campus contracts encouraged Zoom to clarify its position on academic freedom."
However, Zoom's approach to events with terrorists like Khaled remained ambiguous. It still refused to state whether or not it would host such events, which might be illegal under "material support" laws prohibiting, among other things, providing "communications equipment" or "tangible or intangible service" to terrorists.
FIRE argued that the opponents' reliance on Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, which allowed for expansive interpretations of counter-terrorism laws, is misguided. It cited a previous case, Kleindienst v. Mandel, in which the Supreme Court refused to force the State Department to grant a visa to a communist professor, stating, in part, that other alternatives, such as books or phone conversations, would allow for interested parties to hear the same ideas, access that it would be "loath" to take away.
But while the professor in question held to a radical ideology, no facts suggested he was a member of a terrorist organization, as Khaled is to this day. Indeed, in Kleindienst, the court said that "abstract teaching," of violent ideologies "is not the same as preparing a group for violent action and steeling it to such action." It was Khaled's ongoing leadership in the PFLP that made providing her a platform different from granting the same to generic foes of Israel or even apologists for terrorism.
Thus, by refusing to host Khaled even after having pledged their support for academic freedom, the various social media platforms have obviously concluded that there is a genuine legal threat to their hosting events with overt terrorists.
These legal subtleties may never be litigated fully. Situations such as this, in which a member in good standing of an active terrorist organization seeks to address a public audience, are rare. The larger issue is the academic culture of institutions willing to sponsor such events.
While UC Merced technically didn't disavow the event, it claimed to not be "sponsoring or hosting this event," even though the event was to be held using its Zoom account, and it admitted that it didn't restrict professors' individual access to platforms based on usage. UC Merced further stated that it "denounces violence and the incitement of violence in any form." Further, in light of the controversy, it held a special event aimed at the concerns of Jewish students.
In sharp distinction to SFSU's previous full-throttled defense of Khaled's scheduled appearance, UC Merced distanced itself from the latest attempt to host Khaled, thereby tacitly admitting that academic freedom does not extend to actively partnering with terror group members. Even Professor Abdulhadi de-facto paid indirect homage to this truth, writing a polemical defense of the event that failed to mention Khaled's ongoing work for the PFLP.
Unlike SFSU, which has a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Hamas-friendly An-Najah University in the West Bank and a history of turning a blind eye to campus antisemitism, UC Merced does not have a reputation for being close to terrorists or their enablers. Understandably, it wanted to keep it that way.
Thus, this second attempt to legitimize a terrorist by Zoom was met not just with failure, but with implicit rejections of the opinions that would support sponsoring such an event in the first place.
Last year, I argued that universities, civil rights leaders, national security officials, and others need to explain more clearly where the lines are between legitimate free speech and academic freedom concerns, and actively promoting terrorists. Even FIRE, while pushing a more permissive standard, recently opined that this muddled area needs to be clarified.
But FIRE misses that this issue is being clarified already. Both universities and technology lawyers are increasingly concluding that, while academic inquiry is sacrosanct, it does not include actively giving platforms to those who are part of organizations explicitly dedicated to perpetrating violence.
How norms in the age of Zoom will develop for radicals not formally associated with a terrorist group, however, remains to be seen.