On March 30, 2020, unidentified individuals reportedly interrupted an online meeting for a campus organization at the University of Texas at Austin by shouting racial slurs.
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 30, UT Austin’s Heman Sweatt Center for Black Males, an organization dedicated to support the academic and personal development of black men on campus, held a virtual meeting on Zoom to discuss how to stay focused in the midst of coronavirus and the students’ current living environment. In a KXAN article, Ryan Sutton, the director of the center, reported that twenty minutes into the Zoom meeting, a few individuals interrupted the meeting by shouting racial slurs to the meeting participants. Sutton ended the meeting abruptly because of the interruption.
The UT Austin president posted on Twitter that they will increase online security for staff to prevent similar hijackings and that if the hijackers are UT Austin students, that they would face disciplinary measures. As of this report, the identities of the hijackers are 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.