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 31, 2020

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):Loyola University Chicago

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On March 31, 2020, unidentified individuals reportedly interrupted a Loyola University Chicago online lecture by shouting racial slurs, posting racist messages and pornographic images.

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 31, Badia Ahad, an associate professor of African American Literature, held a lecture on Zoom to discuss Parable of the Sower, a science fiction novel about climate change, race, and class by Octavia Butler. Ahad reported to WBEZ Chicago that individuals interrupted Ahad’s lecture by shouting at her that she was “a horrible professor,” scrawling the N-word onto the screen, and sharing pornographic images. The interruption forced Ahad to end her class abruptly.

As of this report, the identities of the individuals who hijacked Ahad’s virtual class are unknown.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the targeted racist hijacking of a scholar’s lecture, 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.