As university communities adapt to remote learning environments in response to the novel coronavirus, novel civil liberties questions are arising about what should happen when those environments are disrupted.
For example, students and faculty are wondering how to respond to the recent spate of so-called “Zoombombings” — in which someone purposely “bombs” classes or meetings being held on the widely-used video conferencing platform, Zoom, by posting graphic or otherwise-disruptive content. (Of course, this could happen on most platforms.)
Zoombombings are happening nationwide in a variety of contexts, most likely when those outside of an institution or organization find and exploit publicly shared Zoom meeting links — including those to college and university classes.
Last week, a storytelling course at Arizona State University was Zoombombed by someone who showed a pornographic video; University of Southern California administrators confirmed that multiple Zoom courses were infiltrated by people using “racist and vile language”; the FBI and the LAPD said they were investigating the Zoombombing of a business administration class at Loyola Marymount University where “an unknown source ‘displayed repugnant racial content’”; and a California State University, Long Beach graduate student’s virtual dissertation defense was disrupted “by someone who scrawled the N-word, drew an image of genitalia and posted pornographic images.”
Zoombombing a class is not protected by the First Amendment, any more than it would be protected for a streaker to burst in the door of the classroom shouting epithets. Thankfully, though, professors have, if anything, more tools to prevent virtual disruptions than they do live ones. You can’t simply press a button to mute or hide the aforementioned streaker, for example. But Zoom has responded to the attacks with guidance on how teachers can change their settings to minimize the chance of disruption, and nearly every other platform also has tools to mute or kick off users who are not supposed to be part of the meeting. Zoom also asks users who have been Zoombombed to report the disruption here.
And while making a class videoconferencing link public may be an efficient method for faculty members to connect evacuated students to their classes, it may not be the wisest — and the tools available to faculty to guide online classes do not, if deployed appropriately, violate the First Amendment. Just as with in-person events, colleges and universities are free to apply viewpoint and content neutral regulations to minimize course disruptions, like restricting access to virtual classrooms to students only. And universities should do what they can to make sure online disruptions like Zoombombings don’t result in canceled classes. Just as universities should not ratify a “heckler’s veto” by allowing people to disrupt real-life classes or meetings, they should do their best to apply the same principles to the virtual spaces that so many students now occupy. Failing to do so will only encourage further such behavior, especially as those who wish to disrupt activities don’t even need to leave their own homes to do so.
As colleges adapt in a hurry to the new (if hopefully temporary) reality of online classes, there are bound to be further challenges that are hard to foresee. Generally, though, both the law and common sense suggest that doing one’s best to analogize virtual spaces to real ones will result in the most sensible outcomes. But that also means that campus rights abuses that happen in real life are likely to happen in online life as well. As always, FIRE stands ready to assist in either case.
If you have a question about online learning, or believe your rights have been violated in an online learning environment, contact FIRE today.