A recent Zoom event at San Francisco State University (SFSU) sparked investigations by the Departments of Education, Justice, and Treasury. Congressman Doug Lamborn (R-CO) requested this action in a letter that threatened SFSU with severe federal consequences if it proceeded with an event hosting Leila Khaled, a current leader in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP), a US and EU-designated terrorist group.
Congressman Lamborn later referred SFSU for prosecution due to this event. While it is not uncommon for universities to feature strident anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic speakers, Khaled’s current leadership in a US-designated terrorist organization makes this case different in kind, and most likely unlawful. This area of law and policy are still unsettled.
Khaled is not just any terrorist. According to one law professor, “No living person has done more to romanticize terrorism than Leila Khaled.” Her iconic status was assured when, over 50 years ago as an attractive young woman, she was an accomplice in the hijacking of two commercial airliners. In one, quick thinking by the pilot allowed her co-conspirator to be killed, yet all on board would have died if the grenade Khaled armed had not failed to explode. Given these violent actions, Khaled has never been granted a US visa and has been denied visas by several other Western countries for her involvement with the PFLP and terrorist acts. Thus, before the advent of video conferencing, an event like SFSU’s would not have been possible.
Versions of this technology have been available for some time. Indeed, Khaled appeared at a Marxist festival in the UK in 2012 via Skype, but this went largely unnoticed. However, technological advances in video conferencing have made it very cheap, nearly ubiquitous, and able to reach large audiences. The coronavirus pandemic has normalized mass video conferencing events as a way of interacting, even at prestigious institutions.
In this case, various Jewish organizations fought to shut down the Khaled event, pointing out to SFSU and Zoom, the online platform on which the event was to be held, that they were potentially in violation of laws concerning material support for terrorism.
Big tech got the message: Zoom, Facebook, and, partway into the event, YouTube refused to carry the event since it violated their terms of service preventing their platforms from being used in defiance of counter-terrorism laws. The investigation into SFSU’s role in this fiasco will undoubtedly discourage further such ventures.
However, Khaled’s case is unique insofar as she is a well-known terrorist and an open member of a designated terrorist organization, recently listed as such on PFLP’s website. The various web platforms relented because, given the openness of Khaled’s membership in PFLP, they feared running afoul of the law. SFSU, on the other hand, has still not backed down.
The Supreme Court would suggest that Zoom and Co.’s fears are well-founded. In Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, the Supreme Court held that “advocacy performed in coordination with, or at the direction of, a foreign terrorist organization” would qualify as material support of terrorism, and the text of the statute itself, 18 U.S.C. § 2339A, bans providing “communications equipment” to terrorist groups. This explains why Khaled’s event was (eventually) canceled, and why multiple federal agencies are investigating it for potential legal violations. Several disinterested legal experts agree that Holder and 18 U.S.C. § 2339A suggest such events are illegal, including experts who disagree with the law.
What happens when this reasoning butts up against potential First Amendment issues isn’t clear. For example, could the New York Times be held criminally liable for publishing an op-ed by a terrorist, as it has done in the past? Nothing like this has been litigated, and it’s sure to be a hot-button issue if it ever is. But Holder doesn’t draw those fine lines.
The US is not the only country struggling with this issue. Not long after the aborted SFSU panel, Khaled successfully held a separate event at Leeds University in Australia. It was apparently pulled off without the knowledge of senior university administrators, who have since launched an investigation into how this occurred. While the university’s public statements don’t mention any fears of running afoul of the law, both “urging violence” against a particular national or ethnic group, and “advocating terrorism,” which by any common understanding Khaled and the PFLP do as a matter of course, are illegal in Australia.
Khaled is hardly the only terrorist given a major platform and a new audience via modern video conferencing technology. Professor Rahab Abdulhadi, who, as it happens, was the same professor who hosted Khaled at SFSU, recently took part in another online event with Sami Al-Arian, a former US resident and an acknowledged member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) who also confessed to conspiring to provide services to PIJ.
Previously, Al-Arian agreed to be deported to Turkey following a guilty plea to conspiring to fund PIJ: again, he’d never be granted a US visa. And yet, Al-Arian is a serial US webinar participant: just recently, he appeared in a webinar for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Florida branch, and also one at Georgetown University’s Saudi-funded Prince Alawaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, where he is billed as a “former political prisoner,” in spite of his prior confessions to conspiring to support PIJ.
While it is unclear if Al-Arian remains a PIJ member, the details of his involvement are not widely advertised, and he isn’t as well-known. Thus, he didn’t face the same legal and public relations difficulties that Khaled did. Nonetheless, there is every reason to believe he is a PIJ member. He clearly remains sympathetic to their agenda.
There’s also the issue of leaders in state sponsors of terrorism. Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, had its foreign minister, Javad Zarif, himself subject to personal US sanctions, speak online to an American audience courtesy of the Council on Foreign Relations. This event also sparked controversy, but unlike SFUS’s event with Khaled, it went on unabated. This was not the first time an online meeting for a governmental figure from a state sponsor of terror generated controversy; a senior advisor to Bashar Al-Assad, the genocidal dictator of Syria, appeared at an event virtually in the National Press Club in Washington, DC.
These examples are telling, but not exhaustive. We are left with this: during the pandemic, a growing number of far-left institutions sympathetic to radicals are using new technology to normalize events featuring obvious members of terrorist groups and leaders of terrorist regimes in ways that were not possible before.
This cannot be seen as simply “free speech” without further qualification, as the transition to those who use violence is a long-agreed-upon red line, even in the freest and democratic countries. Universities and others who host such events should be chastised, regardless of whether they are legal—and it appears they may not be in many important situations.
Moreover, lawmakers, judges, educators, civil libertarians, national security experts, legal experts, and other stakeholders need to get a grasp on where the legal and ethical lines are. Vital constitutional rights should be protected, but terrorists should not be normalized.
Drawing these lines will not be easy. This conversation should start now, with the understanding that the status-quo of looking the other way won’t do.