On May 9, 2020, unidentified individuals reportedly interrupted Oklahoma City University’s virtual graduation ceremony, broadcast over Zoom, with a series of racist messages.
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.
Toward the end of the virtual ceremony, as Jay Williams, an African American graduate, recited a concluding prayer, racial slurs and a swastika reportedly appeared on screen. Zoom officials condemned the incident, and the university announced that it had launched a joint investigation with the FBI to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the hijacking of a university event, intended to harass members of the university community and prevent 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.