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FBI Visit to Oklahoma Woman in Response to Social Media Post Sparks Debate on Free Speech

by Jo Ellen Knott

On March 19, 2024, an Egyptian-Muslim woman in Oklahoma filmed an encounter with FBI agents who visited her home to discuss social media posts. The video went viral, sparking debate on free speech and government surveillance. Free speech advocates worry the FBI may be exceeding its authority in its social media monitoring practices.

Unsurprisingly, the FBI is seemingly unconcerned. The encounter, filmed by 43-year-old Rolla Abdeljawad, shows agents claiming they routinely question people over social media activity “every day, all day long.” One agent stated, “It’s just an effort to keep everybody safe and make sure nobody has any ill will.” When three FBI agents visited her house in Stillwater, Abdeljawad refused to engage and demanded to see a warrant.

What prompted the surprise FBI visit to Abdeljawad’s home? She had posted critical content about the Israel-Palestine conflict on Facebook. She refers to Israel as “Israhell” and supports #FreePalestine. But none of the posts on her feed call for violence. Reason reported that Abdeljawad had also posted warnings about government monitoring: “If you’re Muslim and/or pro-pal consider all your media accounts, Google searches, mail, messenger, local mosques & political events monitored. #NYC #usa #PoliceState #FreePalestine”

Abdeljawad’s video of the FBI visit ignited controversy online, attracting support from both civil liberties advocates and conservative groups critical of the FBI. Muslim rights groups expressed concern about potential bias, while conversative media and social media figures framed Abdeljawad’s video as government suppression of dissent and pointed to “tyrannical tendencies under Democratic rule.” However, support from some on the right fizzled after they looked more closely at her social media activity and found antisemitic tropes.

The FBI declined to comment on the specific case but emphasized its commitment to upholding First Amendment rights. Abdeljawad’s lawyer, Hassan Shibly, advises people to be aware of their rights when dealing with the FBI. While Abdeljawad was right to refuse to speak and record the interaction, Shibly suggests not leaving the house to talk with agents. His goal is to raise awareness and “put them [FBI] in check” for potentially infringing on free speech rights.

Abdeljawad has no regrets about her actions and insists upon her right to free speech. The self-described “Okified New Yorker,” who teaches overseas when not in Oklahoma, hopes the incident sparks conversation about the importance of protecting civil liberties, especially engaging in speech that’s clearly protected by the First Amendment and not let unsettling visits from the FBI chill such constitutionally-protected activities.  

 

Sources: Looking for Liberty, Reason, The Washington Post

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