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Brandeis panel on Uyghur Muslims is facing calls for cancellation, Zoombombing
by Sarah McLaughlin
November 24, 2020
Universities around the world have been met increasing challenges while discussing issues sensitive to the Chinese government such as Tiananmen Square or Hong Kong, especially as events and classes have been forced online and speakers exposed to increased internet censorship. American campuses are also not immune to these challenges, as a recent incident at Brandeis University illustrates.
On November 13, Brandeis held a Zoom panel entitled "Cultural Genocide: An Overview of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China" to discuss China's treatment of its Uyghur Muslim population. The event was featured panelists including James Millward, professor of inter-societal history at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service, and Rayhan Asat, a lawyer, attorney and sister of an Uyghur businessman locked up in China.
The event had problems before it went live. According to De Brandeis Hoot, "(T) he Chinese Student and Scholars Association (CSSA) club posted on the group's WeChat page with concerns about how the panel could negatively impact the Chinese community at Brandeis." The message contained a template letter to Brandeis officials, stating, “I support freedom of expression in this community. However, there are concerns about the negative impact this panel will have on the Chinese community in Brandeis, as the information in the panel may be based on incorrect or unconfirmed information. The letter continues:
I believe Brandeis makes a lot of effort to promote campus diversity and support equality in higher education. I hope my concerns will be sent (sic) to the people responsible for this event, and that all future panels on topics related to China will be established based on impartial viewpoints. As a Chinese student at Brandeis University, I hope the university will respect my country and not treat it as a target for conviction.
Millward shared on Twitter that Brandeis's president and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion did receive copies of those letters – it's unclear how many – but chose not to cancel the event.
Voice of America, who wrote about the panel, said it had "confirmed that the template of the letter sent to Brandeis appears to be the same as that of the school's Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA)."
FIRE is pleased to see that Brandeis did not interfere with the event after it led to complaints. Universities should not engage in checking whether campus discussions are "impartial" on the topic of China or other topics, nor should they interfere with the right of campus community members to speak openly about global political issues. Indeed, Rory Truex, assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, pointed out late last year The Atlantic Ocean that US campuses are 'among the few areas where this can happen' as China has increasing power to censor global talks, a trend FIRE tracks on campuses.
Although the event could continue at Brandeis, it did not happen without interruptions. The event was Reportedly Zoom bomb bed repeatedly by attendees who played the Chinese national anthem over speakers and wrote about their presentation. Like with tweeted a photo of her screen from the event, with comments like "FAKE NEWS", "Bullshit" and "Hypocrite" scribbled across her slides. Millward called it is a "(c) coordinated disturbance."
Yesterday I gave up a presentation @BrandeisU through @Zoom. A #Chinese student hijacked my screen and kept writing to prevent me from continuing. It was a difficult moment. I still maintained my professionalism and called for politeness and respect for academic freedom. pic.twitter.com/utfwcEW8Ao
– Rayhan E. Asat ✍️ (@RayhanAsat) November 14, 2020
This panel is not the first to be faced with cancellation or disruption attempts to focus on a topic sensitive to China, and is unlikely to be the last. When other universities demand that they interfere in an event due to its controversial nature, they should follow Brandeis's lead. American universities offer some of the strongest protections for speech and discussion in the world, and it is vital that they adhere to these protections when pressured to deviate from censoring difficult political talks like the one about China.
Interested in more discussion about American universities and their international challenges to free speech? Read FIRE & # 39; s cover here.