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Zoom said no to a Palestinian terrorist. Others must follow.

A face-off this week pitted the video app Zoom against a public university on what should have been a simple question: Should college students be able to Zoom with a terrorist? The public university, San Francisco State University, said yes; it had scheduled a Zoom conversation with the Palestinian terrorist Leila Khaled, who executed two hijackings of Israeli planes in 1969 and 1970 as a member of the terrorist group the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. It was Zoom that said no; on Tuesday, it announced that it would not allow the event to take place on its platform.

It might be surprising to see Zoom take a political stance, but it shouldn’t be. Our new town squares are virtual, and social media platforms are where we argue and agree, display our political loyalties and fall in love. In short, we live online.

This is increasingly true of how we learn as well. Covid-19 has wildly accelerated the trend towards online education, depopulating campuses and beaming courses directly onto students’ computers. Parties and in person seminars are often no longer part of the deal.

The convergence of the university and the internet has brought together the two most frenzied fronts in the ongoing battles over free speech; if the free speech problem with the internet is that anything goes, the challenge on campus is that too little can be said. The unfettered exchange of ideas can seem like a distant memory in today’s restrictive youth culture with its rampant cancellations of anyone straying from dogma.

But this censorship does not, apparently, extend to unrepentant terrorists like Khaled, whose resume scored her an invitation to speak at the SFSU event entitled “Whose Narratives? Gender, Justice & Representation,” co-sponsored by a handful of university departments and affiliate groups and moderated by SFSU professors. And in response to an uproar, SFSU president Lynn Mahoney defended the invitation on the grounds that “Higher education and the college experience are an opportunity to hear divergent ideas, viewpoints and accounts of life experiences.”

Indeed. I, too, believe that a passionate commitment to freedom of speech must go hand in hand with a commitment to protecting its outer edges. But defending the right of an unrepentant terrorist to speak does not make you a liberal. It makes you an accomplice of illiberalism.

This seems to have been lost on the leadership at SFSU, so it was rewarding to see Zoom picking it up. In response to an appeal by the Lawfare Project, Zoom affirmed its commitment to freedom of speech while also correctly noting that “In light of the speaker’s reported affiliation or membership in a U.S. designated foreign terrorist organization, and SFSU’s inability to confirm otherwise, we determined the meeting is in violation of Zoom’s Terms of Service and told SFSU they may not use Zoom for this particular event.”

Zoom deserves to be applauded for this stance. Being true guardians of free speech by policing the edges is increasingly something our new platforms must take up. The role of Facebook, Twitter, and their peers in empowering speech or degrading our discourse is at the center of our worries about the social dimension of our democracy. Extremism merchants and conspiracy theorists have found new microphones and are broadcasting at the highest volume. The algorithms that drive clicks and engagement have become our contemporary pictures of Dorian Grey, giving us back to ourselves uglier and more agitated than we were before we logged in.

Fixing this problem is not easy. There is no simple solution, whether on campus or online, to the problem of just how free speech should be; one woman’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.

But some principles can point the way forward. The bias must be healthily and heavily weighted towards allowing voices from a wide range of perspectives, especially those we disagree with. We need to be suspect of all those who would tightly link identity and the right to speak or suggest that speech be barred because it is potentially hurtful. Nobody should ever be told to be quiet or take a back seat: The chorus of democracy should have nobody muted just because of who they are.

If these commitments keep us free, a much narrower set of standards keep us moral. These are not the spaces we open up but the lines we draw around speech that is hateful or speakers who evinced their commitments to harm. There are no hard and fast rules, only the grinding and messy moral work of making distinctions and living by our values. Those on the left and right who deny that freedom of speech is a good are ventriloquizing authoritarianism. Those, like SFSU and Khaled’s defenders who fail to see the danger of a terrorist in academic regalia are practicing moral nihilism.

It is a sad day when a video conferencing software company evinces greater moral courage than an institution devoted to learning and ideas. But the truth is that as more and more happens online, the character of our commons will increasingly be decided by politicians, provosts and programmers.

Zoom made the right call this time. But we all must prepare against the inevitable day when they do not. In the meantime, opposing platforming terrorists should be the exception that proves the free speech rule.


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