SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: March 26, 2020

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):California State University, Long Beach

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On March 26, 2020, an unidentified individual reportedly interrupted a California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) graduate student’s online thesis defense by posting racist messages and pornographic images on the Zoom conference he was using to communicate with the committee reviewing his thesis.

Starting in early March, 2020, higher education institutions across the US suspended in-person classes and campus activities, moving them all online as part of an effort to prevent the spread of a global pandemic known as COVID-19. The virus, first detected in Wuhan, China in December 2019, has spread to a growing number of countries around the world. As of April 13, 2020, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, there are 1,870,076 confirmed cases around the world with the majority in the US at 558,526 cases.

Faculty, students, and members of the higher education community use online video conferencing platforms, including Zoom, to hold virtual classes and meetings. A growing number of Zoom meetings and classes have been hijacked by uninvited individuals who post racist, pornographic, or other disturbing messages to the screen or chat. On March 30, the FBI issued a warning about the increase in reports of these hijackings also known as Zoom-bombings, calling on victims of “teleconference hijacking, or any cyber-crime” to report it to the FBI.

On March 26, Dennis Johnson, a recent graduate of a doctorate of education from CSULB, gave a defense of his dissertation on Zoom. Johnson’s dissertation focused on the experiences of African American students who were enrolled in career pathway programs in California high schools. Johnson reported in a petition he issued to Zoom that ten minutes into a presentation where he provided a historical analysis of the oppression of black students in the US education system, an individual shared his screen, drew a pornographic image, and then wrote the N-word. The individual then shared pornographic images and videos. Johnson carried on his presentation after the interruption.

Following the presentation, Johnson issued a petition to Zoom calling on the company to address racist hijackings of online meetings. As of this report, the identity of the individual who hijacked Johnson’s presentation is unknown.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the targeted racist hijacking of a campus organization’s meeting, intended to restrict or retaliate against the non-violent exercise of the rights to academic freedom and freedom of expression. Members of the public have a responsibility to respect institutional autonomy and refrain from interfering in the functioning of higher education. State authorities and other stakeholders, including companies running internet communication platforms, have an obligation to take available measures to protect the functioning of the higher education space, and to respond appropriately to threats, particularly during a period of heightened vulnerability of the higher education space. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such acts undermine institutional autonomy, academic freedom, and democratic society generally.