The feds are probing a California university for inviting a Palestinian airplane hijacker to give a virtual talk that Zoom refused to host, The Post has learned.
The US Department of Education is reviewing concerns that San Francisco State University broke federal rules by attempting to host the event with Leila Khaled who helped carry out two politically motivated hijackings in 1969 and 1970. The agency has also asked the Justice Department and the US Treasury to examine the case, documents obtained by The Post show.
The publicly funded school made headlines in September when Zoom barred it from using the videoconferencing service to broadcast Khaled’s talk. The stream was moved to YouTube but was cut off after just 23 minutes.
The Lawfare Project, a pro-Israel nonprofit, urged the feds to investigate the Sept. 23 event given Khaled’s ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, or PFLP, a revolutionary group that the US has designated a terrorist organization.
“In normal circumstances, people like Leila Khaled would be barred entry into the United States,” Lawfare Project senior counsel Gerard Filitti told The Post. “However, now we’re living in a world in which Zoom and teleconferences and videoconferences are the norm, and it would be a perversion of justice if terrorists were allowed to spread their message and indoctrinate students by Zoom.”
The Lawfare Project contends SFSU provided “material support” to terrorists by offering Khaled a platform in the US, violating an anti-terrorism statute known as 18 USC Section 2339B.
In an Oct. 8 letter responding to the group, Education Department official Reed Rubinstein acknowledged that “SFSU’s conduct concerning Leila Khaled and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine may be subject to the Department of the Treasury’s sanctions authorities.”
Rubinstein, the agency’s principal deputy general counsel, referred the concerns to both the Treasury and the Department of Justice, which enforces the relevant anti-terrorism law, according to letters that Lawfare provided to The Post.
The Education Department will evaluate concerns that SFSU’s webinar violated civil rights rules and the conditions of federal grants the university received, Rubinstein wrote. The department’s civil rights office in San Francisco said in a Monday letter to Lawfare that it received the complaint and would decide whether to fully investigate it within 30 days.
A formal investigation by the feds could lead to a reduction in the university’s federal funding as well as possible fines or criminal charges, according to Lawfare executive director Brooke Goldstein.
The Treasury Department declined to comment. The Justice Department and the Education Department did not respond to requests for comment. SFSU also didn’t respond to an email seeking comment on the feds’ action.
Concerns about Khaled’s membership in a terrorist group have led Zoom to scuttle two events featuring Khaled — one at SFSU and another scheduled for last month at the University of Hawaii — because they violated the videoconferencing giant’s policies.
YouTube similarly removed a live broadcast of the SFSU talk for breaking its rules after the organizers tried to host the event there. A clip Lawfare captured shows the stream being interrupted as the hosts played a video in which Khaled asks, “Who decides and defines what terrorism is?”
The SFSU event, hosted by professors Rabab Abdulhadi and Tomomi Kinukawa, was billed as a “historic roundtable conversation” with Khaled and other pro-Palestinian activists, according to a Facebook event listing that was removed.
Pro-Palestinian activists slammed Zoom and YouTube for scrapping Khaled’s talk, saying the platforms wrongly silenced an important discussion. SFSU President Lynn Mahoney has also stood by her faculty’s right to facilitate such controversial conversations and said the school did not compensate Khaled for her participation in any way.
“We cannot embrace the silencing of controversial views, even if they are hurtful to others,” Mahoney said in a statement after Zoom canceled the event. “We must commit to speech and to the right to dissent, including condemning ideologies of hatred and violence against unarmed civilians.”
But Goldstein says the school crossed the boundaries of academic freedom. She said she hopes the feds will investigate the event and “enforce the law as they deem necessary.”
“Terrorists do not have fundamental rights to free speech,” Goldstein told The Post.
Khaled, an icon of the Palestinian resistance movement, has been branded a terrorist by Jewish groups as well as Elan Carr, the US State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism.
She is perhaps best known for her roles in two PFLP hijackings: One targeting a Tel Aviv-bound plane in 1969 and another on a flight from Amsterdam to New York in 1970.
In the 1969 attack, Khaled and another hijacker forced the jet to land in Damascus and blew up the plane’s nose section after evacuating it. PFLP operatives mistakenly believed Israeli ambassador Yitzhak Rabin was a passenger, but American diplomat Thomas Boyatt was in fact on board.
The later hijacking was one of four that the PFLP carried out on Sept. 6, 1970. But it didn’t work — Khaled was apprehended by British authorities in London and her partner, Sandinista revolutionary Patrick Argüello, was shot and killed on the plane.