Free speech org vows to 'monitor' colleges with classes online

On April 2, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) issued a statement outlining the steps that students, professors, and school administrators can take to protect academic freedom along with freedom of expression within the virtual classroom, vowing to “monitor” colleges to help ensure they do not violate students’ civil liberties amid the coronavirus crisis.

The recent trend of  “Zoombombing,” in which uninvited guests disrupt virtual classrooms, has prompted authorities such as the New York Attorney General and even the FBI to look into and assess the quality of privacy when using the teleconferencing application, Zoom. 

While these disruptions in classrooms were typically the display of obscenities resulting in justifiable removal of the disruptors, concerns still remain about the protection of First Amendment rights within the classroom.

[RELATED: FBI gets involved as ‘Zoombombing’ threatens online classes]

FIRE says that professors have the right to maintain their virtual classrooms “without interruption, disruption, or unreasonable distraction from students in attendance or others who may be nearby,” just as they would in a traditional classroom.  FIRE also stipulates that professors are within their rights to “restrict the ability of unauthorized individuals to access and disrupt class sessions using the platform’s security settings.”

Recently, the FBI issued a press release directing individuals who have fallen victim to an uninvited guest in their teleconference, to report the incident to the FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center. 

Adam Steinbaugh, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program addressed the FBI’s actions in a statement to Campus Reform saying, “It is not necessarily inappropriate for law enforcement to investigate unlawful intrusions to an online class, especially when those intrusions substantially disrupt class, any more than it would be inappropriate for police to investigate a non-student who trespasses into a classroom uninvited.”

[RELATED: As coronavirus forces classes online, colleges face new challenge: ‘Zoombombing’]

But FIRE makes clear that a line must be drawn when it comes to investigating students or faculty for things said in the teleconferences. 

“Institutions should be cautious that they not ask law enforcement to investigate students or faculty for the viewpoints they express in an online class,” Steinbaugh added.”

FIRE’s Communications Manager Daniel Burnett told Campus Reform that the organization will “continue to monitor colleges’ transition toward greater use of technology to ensure that basic civil liberties are not compromised.” 

“In a crisis like this, civil liberties and expressive rights can be in danger. But these are the times it’s particularly important to safeguard these values,” added Burnett.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AlexTokie