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 15, 2020

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):Northwestern University

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On May 15, 2020, unidentified individuals reportedly disrupted a virtual symposium hosted by the Northwestern Women’s Center at Northwestern University by displaying images of child sexual abuse. 

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 May 15, an online audience of about 60 people, including directors of women’s centers and LGBT centers from around the world, were present for a symposium hosted by the Northwestern Women’s Center on the theme of gender, education and progress. Shortly after the symposium opened, one or more individuals joined the meeting and used the “share screen” to post graphic images of sexual abuse of young children. Organizers closed the conference and sent out a new meeting link, but it was infiltrated in the same manner as the previous one. 

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.