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 18, 2023

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):California State University, San Bernardino

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On November 18, 2023, the National Communication Association (NCA) canceled a planned speech by Ahlam Muhtaseb, a Palestinian professor of communication studies at California State University, San Bernardino, because she planned to use the word “genocide” to describe the conflict in Gaza and to use the phrase “free Palestine” in her remarks.

The cancellation of the speech occurred against the backdrop of a Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, during which over 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals were killed and more than 200 abducted, and the Israeli military’s subsequent bombardment of the Gaza Strip which, as of early February 2024, has reportedly killed more than 27,000 Palestinians. The violence has led to heightened tensions around speech in the United States and around the world.

NCA president, Walid Afifi, the first Palestinian president of the Association, had invited Muhtaseb, along with five other communication professors, to contribute remarks focusing on social justice issues as part of his Presidential Address at the 2023 NCA Annual Convention. The event includes an award ceremony honoring accomplishments in teaching, scholarship, and service.

Muhtaseb sent her speech to Afifi five days ahead of the event. Speaking to TRT World, she noted that the content received objections from some NCA staff. On the day of the convention, 30 minutes before the Presidential Address, Afifi informed Muhtaseb that she could not give her speech her speech because members of NCA’s executive branch took issue with her planned use of the term “genocide” and phrase “free Palestine.” Afifi stated that NCA would cancel the award ceremony if Muhtaseb delivered her speech. It is unclear who at the NCA called for Muhtaseb’s speech to be canceled. Reportedly, Afifi did not make the decision.

In solidarity with Muhtaseb, the other professors slated to speak in the Presidential Address refused to participate. During the awards ceremony, Muhtaseb briefly stood on stage with duct tape over her mouth and then stormed out of the room. She also declined the award she was meant to receive. The other five professors initially wanted to participate in Muhtaseb’s protest on stage but were told that they may be removed by security personnel. Instead, the other professors gave their speeches outside after the ceremony.

On November 27, 2023, NCA released a statement addressing the incident. The statement, signed by the Executive Committee Voting Members, stated that the organization had opened an investigation into the cancellation. It identifies several internal issues that contributed to the incident, such as “insufficient empowerment, authority, and agency in the office of the elected NCA president” and “lack of clarity in the roles of NCA elected officers and some members of the NCA National Office,” in relation to the Presidential Address. The statement notes that the NCA issued a personal apology to Muhtaseb and the other professors who refused to speak, refunded registration fees to those participants, and extended offers for the scholars to participate in the 2024 Annual Convention or showcase their work on the NCA website.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about an academic association’s decision to rescind a scholar’s speaking invitation because of politically-motivated concerns. Academic associations have a responsibility not to interfere with scholarly expression, so long as it is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. Actions by academic associations that limit the rights to free expression undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.