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: November 13, 2020

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):Brandeis University

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On November 13, 2020, individuals hijacked an online panel discussion hosted by Brandeis University.

The panel, titled “Cultural Genocide: An Overview of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China”, focused on the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghur population in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.  

Before the event was broadcast, a template letter was circulated by distributed by Brandeis’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), and copies were submitted to the school’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, raising concerns that the event “may be based on false or unconfirmed information” and therefore may fail to be impartial. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has asserted that it has received credible reporting that as many as two million Uyghurs and other members of Muslim minorities have been detained and forced into so-called “re-education camps.” These reports have been supported by the reporting of numerous activists and independent human rights monitors.

Shortly after the event began, attendees began disrupting it, playing the Chinese National Anthem over their speakers and writing messages such as “FAKE NEWS” and “bullsh*t” over the presenters’ slides. One panelist, Professor James Millward, referred to the actions as a “coordinated disruption.”

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the disruption of university events, intended to prevent or interfere with 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.