Leila Khaled speaking in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2009. (Photo/Flickr-Sebastian Baryli CC BY 2.0)
Leila Khaled speaking in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2009. (Photo/Flickr-Sebastian Baryli CC BY 2.0)

Tech companies block Leila Khaled event at SFSU for a second time

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The Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies program at San Francisco State University was blocked from hosting an event planned for today at noon featuring a former Palestinian hijacker after multiple tech companies removed links on their platforms to the online presentation.

On April 13, the Facebook page for the school’s AMED program was taken down and was still inaccessible as of midday Friday. On April 15, Eventbrite took down the invitation page. And most recently, on Wednesday, Zoom removed the link to the program, “Whose Narratives? What Free Speech for Palestine?”

The planned April 23 event, which drew backlash from Jewish groups, was supposed to feature Leila Khaled, a Palestinian activist who participated in two airplane hijackings in 1969 and 1970 as a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The PFLP, which first popularized the use of airplane hijackings as a form of resistance against Israel, is currently designated as a terrorist group by the State Department. As recently as 2016, Khaled advocated for the use of violence as one of the tools for resistance.

The shutdown of the event marks the second time tech companies have taken action against an AMED-hosted forum.

In September, the department planned a panel featuring Khaled and others. After pushback from Jewish groups, Zoom and Facebook pulled down links from their platforms, saying the program violated their company policies. The event was then shifted over to YouTube, which took it down about 23 minutes after it began, before Khaled was able to make her presentation. Today’s event was framed  as a response to the tech companies’ actions last September, focusing on “free speech, academic freedom, and the dangers of censorship and silencing.”

In the aftermath of the September dustup and criticism from free speech advocates, Zoom this month relaxed its policies surrounding academic events, announcing that it would give universities more control over what could be hosted on its platform and that it would respond only to events in violation of its terms of services or community standards.

Zoom did not immediately respond to a request for comment on why today’s event was blocked, despite the company’s relaxed policy.

In a press release on April 21, AMED’s chair and co-host for the event, associate professor Rabab Abdulhadi, called Facebook’s removal of the department’s page “extreme” and condemned other tech companies for their actions to block the event.

“As with the removal of other profiles and pages, Facebook’s erasure of the AMED Studies program page demonstrates the egregious role private tech companies have taken in suppressing free and open intellectual exchange,” she wrote. Abdulhadi declined an interview with J.

San Francisco Hillel executive director Rachel Nilson Ralston said in a statement to J. that her organization had “expressed alarm about platforming Leila Khaled before Zoom and other companies intervened in September 2020.”

“With this second attempt, 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.”

SFSU did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Among the other guests invited to appear at this week’s forum were former Black Panther Sekou Odinga and activist Laura Whitehorn. Whitehorn is a former member of the Weather Underground who served a 14-year prison sentence after being convicted of a 1983 bombing of the U.S. Capitol. Professor Sean Malloy from UC Merced was also scheduled to attend.

UC Merced spokesperson Jim Chiavelli wrote in a statement to J. that while the university “is not sponsoring or hosting this event,” it does allow for “faculty to use its Zoom platform for matters associated with their teaching and research and does not restrict that access based on content.”

“This program, as described, is about free speech, not terrorism or violence,” he wrote. “UC Merced denounces violence and the incitement of violence in any form; we support freedom of expression as a fundamental alternative to political violence.”

In response to AMED’s thwarted program, UC Merced hosted an event on Friday morning titled “Anti-Semitism and Our Principles of Community,” in which administrators discussed the university’s principles and how they relate to the Jewish community. About two dozen participants were shown slides meant to distinguish the difference between legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and antisemitism.

“Our Jewish colleagues have raised concerns around a controversial event,” said Cynthia Cortez, UC Merced’s deputy chief diversity officer. “In embodying our principles, we’ve created this space not with the intent to counter the [SFSU] program or what the speakers have to say, but really thinking about how the content can make our community members feel unsafe, invisible and vulnerable.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.