On March 31, 2020, unidentified individuals reportedly interrupted an online Student Government meeting at the University of Florida (UF) by writing racist comments and showing 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, which was first detected in Wuhan, China in December 2019, and has spread around the world with nearly two million cases reported globally by April 2020.
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, known as Zoom-bombings, calling on victims of “teleconference hijacking, or any cyber-crime” to report them to the FBI.
On March 31, the UF Student Government held their weekly public meeting on Zoom, after sharing the meeting link over the organization’s Facebook page encouraging others to tune in. Multiple unknown individuals reportedly joined the meeting and wrote racist comments, sexually harassed and sent private messages with death threats to Student Government senators. They also screen-shared images of swastikas and pornography. The students abruptly ended the meeting and the Student Government president reportedly filed a police report. Following the incident, UF President Kent Fuchs announced on Twitter that he asked the UF police and IT to investigate the incident and condemned the Zoom-bombing.
On April 9, local authorities and the FBI identified one individual alleged to be involved in the incident. As of this report, authorities have not filed any charges and are continuing their investigation.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the targeted 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.