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: February 14, 2021

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):University of Edinburgh

Region & Country:Europe | United Kingdom

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On February 14, 2020, an online University of Edinburgh (UE) student event was hijacked and interrupted by racist slurs, homophobic slogans, and pornography.

Starting in March 2020, many higher education institutions across Scotland suspended in-person classes and campus activities, moving them all online as part of an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Faculty, students, and members of the higher education community began to use online video conferencing platforms, including Zoom, to hold virtual classes and meetings. A growing number of online meetings and classes have since been hijacked by uninvited individuals who post racist, pornographic, or other disturbing messages to the screen or chat.

The University’s African and Caribbean Society (ACS) along with Edinburgh Global organized a virtual event on Zoom titled “Pro Black and Anti-Gay?” during the university’s Caribbean Week. The event was intended to be a panel discussion on intersectionality and navigating homophobia in the black community. Towards the end of the event during the question and answer portion, several unidentified individuals reportedly took over the event and shouted “white power,” made threats, displayed pornography, and posted racial and homophobic slurs through the chat function. The event was reportedly not password protected.

According to the BBC, Zoom opened an investigation into the incident, while the ACS reportedly planned to report the attack to authorities. A representative for the EU Students’ Association reported to The Tab that they are working with the University Information Services Group to address digital safety and have offered support to students affected by the attack.

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, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. 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.