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: May 12, 2020

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):California Polytechnic State University

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On May 12, 2020, a group of unidentified individuals interrupted a virtual meeting for the Chinese Students’ Association (CSA) at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) with racist and homophobic images and 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, 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.

About ten minutes after the scheduled 8:00 pm start time of the CSA Zoom meeting, a group of about twenty individuals whom the meeting’s host did not recognize arrived, and began speaking racial slurs and screaming, drowning out the voices of the meeting participants. Shortly thereafter, an individual took over the status of host, and drew racist images including swastikas on the screen. Other individuals posted explicit, offensive images as their virtual backgrounds. The incident was reported to local police, who are reportedly looking into the matter.

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.