ITHACA, N.Y.—One wouldn’t think of Cornell University Library’s YouTube page as a center of controversy. A quick glance at its upload history shows that most of the page’s videos get less than 1,000 views, and its most popular video is a 2019 exploration of “Roman emperors from Augustus to Constantine.”
So it came as a surprise late last week when word began to spread that the Cornell Library’s page had been wiped entirely and the account terminated. That meant losing 114 videos of mostly academic lectures presented by scholars on a vast variety of topics.
It’s not known who or what reported the channel, but the reason for the temporary measure appears to have been nudity in at least one of the videos posted by the page three weeks ago. The topic of those videos was 1980s feminism, namely “The Feminist Sex Wars: A Retrospective by Gayle Rubin” and “Making a Lesbian Sex Magazine in the Age of Feminist Sex Wars.”
Both talks, held in late April, centered on the “On Our Backs” LGBTQ and feminist magazine, and the first lesbian erotica magazine, which was the subject of a commemorative exhibit at the library. The complaint appears to have been made about the latter video, which now has a content warning attached at the beginning of the video. There are at least three depictions of female nudity during the presentations, as examples of what “On Our Backs” was publishing.
A statement from Cornell University deemed the full channel wipe as a “suspension,” though others called it a “termination.” It’s unclear if the page being taken down was the result of a complaint from an actual person or if AI content moderation software flagged the video itself and initiated the process after that.
YouTube has not responded to The Ithaca Voice with an official comment.
“Cornell University Library’s YouTube suspension followed a scholarly academic exhibit that contained nudity,” the university stated. “The University appealed the decision. After reviewing the matter, YouTube found that we were not in violation of their policies and restored the Library’s account.”
“Anyone not interested in feminist politics would have probably fallen asleep.”
Susie Bright, the lecturer who delivered the presentation in the flagged video and the founder of “On Our Backs” magazine, addressed the situation as it unfolded in a post on her website, dated June 17.
“We don’t know if there was a complaint, or it was just their usual harrow of ever-changing terms and conditions,” Bright wrote. “Needless to say, the OOB lecturers were fully clothed and rather obsessed with our historical narrative. Anyone not interested in feminist politics would have probably fallen asleep.”
On June 22, Bright updated the post to say that the videos had been restored and the account reinstated, thanking her readers and others who expressed anger at YouTube’s action—something she thinks may have helped influence the overturn. Her original post includes the following quote as well.
“I have to laugh, really, thinking of how Google’s termination the past two weeks erased all the Cornell lectures on higher mathematics and plate tectonics, fashion design and human ecology, Classical Greek and MBA best practices—yes, ALL OF IT, has been ‘terminated’ by Google because they and their AI moderators are so concerned about ‘sensitive content,'” Bright wrote. “They won’t stand for it. I agree that feminist history is indeed a touchy subject.”
Bright said she had heard other similar stories about other universities in the wake of the Cornell situation—namely, that Rutgers University’s Center for the Genocide and Human Rights had its Facebook page shut down at some point after referencing the Holocaust. In an interview, she voiced some optimism that so many people had taken notice of the situation and made their support known on social media—if a bit jaded from having dealt with another censorship episode. But a career in feminist writing has given Bright ample experience with such an issue.
“To have this groundswell, I think there is an inflection point in the corruption, incompetence and callousness in what it means to have moderation right now,” Bright said.