Academic Freedom Debate Continues

Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Dear campus community,
 
As I wrote to you all recently, San Francisco State finds itself again at the center of a national discussion about the boundaries and consequences of freedom of expression and academic freedom. 
 
The University remains steadfast in its support of the right of faculty to conduct their teaching and scholarship free from censorship, in this instance the right of two faculty members to host “Whose Narratives? Gender, Justice, & Resistance: A Conversation with Leila Khaled” as part of a virtual class. A university can, at the same time, allow its students and faculty the freedom to express contrary, even objectionable, views while also condemning anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Blackness, racism, and other hateful ideologies that marginalize people. These are complex issues but universities above all other places should be places to debate and question complexities.
 
The legal limits of academic freedom and freedom of expression are frequently challenged. We learned late yesterday that Zoom will not allow the virtual class to go forward on its platform because Zoom believes that the event may violate its terms of service with the University and possibly the law. Although we disagree with, and are disappointed by, Zoom’s decision not to allow the event to proceed on its platform, we also recognize that Zoom is a private company that has the right to set its own terms of service in its contracts with users. 
 
We worked hard to prevent this outcome and have been actively engaging with Zoom.  Based on the information we have been able to gather to date, the University does not believe that the class panel discussion violates Zoom’s terms of service or the law.  The University has also shared with Zoom the assurances received from the faculty members that: Ms. Khaled is not speaking as a member, representative, spokesperson, or surrogate for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine; and Ms. Khaled is not receiving compensation from the University of any kind for her participation in this event.  Speaking through their legal counsel, the faculty members have also assured the University that they have no intention of violating the law.
 
Zoom’s cancelation of the event will be deeply wounding to some members of our community who will feel themselves and their dissent silenced once again, just as the participation of Leila Khaled in a class panel discussion is deeply wounding to others in our community. And many across the University and beyond may fear the further erosion of the rights of faculty and see this as damaging to the role of the university in a liberal society. 
 
I am – and will remain – steadfast in my support of freedom of expression and academic freedom. I have reached out to student members of our Jewish community about their rights to dissent, and I will reach out to student members of our Arab and Palestinian communities to affirm our commitment to them.  We cannot embrace the silencing of controversial views, even if they are hurtful to others. We must commit to speech and to the right to dissent, including condemning ideologies of hatred and violence against unarmed civilians.  
 
I encourage and expect our campus community to have courageous conversations centered on challenging issues. We now find ourselves living in such a moment. I urge us to use this as an opportunity to speak with one another, to listen to one another and engage in respectful dissent. Let this University lead by example in its support of, and commitment to, freedom of speech and academic freedom.
 
Best,
Lynn's Signature
Lynn Mahoney, Ph.D.
President