In February 2021, unidentified individuals reportedly used racist and derogatory language and imagery to disrupt and shut down an online event hosted by a group at the City University of New York (CUNY).
Starting in early March 2020, higher education institutions across the US and around the world suspended in-person classes and campus activities, moving them online as part of an effort to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Faculty, students, and members of the higher education community began to use online video conferencing platforms, including Zoom, to hold virtual classes and meetings. In the US especially, 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. On March 30, 2020, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a warning about the increase in reports of these hijackings, commonly referred to as “Zoom-bombings,” calling on victims of “teleconference hijacking, or any cyber-crime” to report them to the FBI.
According to a student news report, on February 11, 2021, a student-led group, the Macaulay Diversity Initiative (MDI), hosted a virtual “Diversity Through Hair” event to celebrate Black History Month. Over one hundred people registered for the event. Shortly after the event began, as many as twenty individuals began disrupting it, first by playing loud music with racial slurs. They then began writing racist slurs into the chat feature and chanting the same through their microphones. The event was ended after roughly ten minutes. Following the event, MDI, via its Instagram account, condemned the online attack and announced that it would reschedule the event.
On February 19, 2021, CUNY Chancellor Matos stated that, over the span of ten days, several online events celebrating Black History Month were the “targets of hateful attacks by individuals who infiltrated the online forums and posted racist, white supremacist messages, and images.” Chancellor Rodríguez stated that the university was working with the New York Governor’s office and the New York State Police Hate Crimes Task Force to investigate the attacks.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the hijacking of university events, intended to 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.