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SXSW under fire after removing harassment-focused panel

A panel focused on ideas to reduce harassment in the video gaming community was canceled because of threats of violence that SXSW received.

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    The 2015 SXSW Interactive festival in Austin.
    Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
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The South By Southwest Festival's decision to cancel an all-female panel about combating harassment in video gaming has quickly swirled into an online controversy. Many critics are calling for the festival to reinstate the canceled talk, while other participants are pulling their panels in solidarity.

The annual music, film, and tech festival in Austin said in an e-mail to panelists Monday that it removed two panels "focused on the GamerGate controversy" from its 2016 lineup because of "threats of violence." GamerGate erupted last year when an anonymous group coordinated efforts to target female game developers, resulting in many prominent female gamers being subjected to online and physical harassment.

"Obviously I feel very disappointed that their response to threats of violence directed at a panel of women in technology has been to effectively silence that panel and to rob the event of what I think was going to be a very productive and wide ranging future-focused discussion," said Katherine Cross, a Ph.D candidate at the City University of New York Graduate Writing Center, who was scheduled to participate in one of the canceled talks.

The dropped panel, "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games," actually wasn't intended to be about GamerGate, said Ms. Cross and her fellow participants. Instead, it aimed to focus on how game design, and other strategies, can help prevent harassment. The second canceled panel, "SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community," would have delved into the social and political "landscape in the gaming community."

For organizers of the "Level Up" panel, this is the first time in their experience talking about issues within gaming that a venue has canceled a panel due to threats. Earlier this year, however, video game developer Brianna Wu, who has spoken out about the harassment of women in gaming, backed out of a gaming festival in Boston because of safety concerns for her and her coworkers. The festival, she has said, would not acknowledge her requests for security measures leading up to the event. 

According to the e-mail from SXSW to Cross and her fellow panelists, the festival "prides itself on being a big tent and a marketplace of diverse people and diverse ideas." But, it went on, "preserving the sanctity of the big tent is more important than preserving any particular session."

Days before receiving the e-mail, Cross's panel reached out to SXSW when the other gamer panel was announced to discuss potential security issues. According to panelist Randi Harper, chief executive officer of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, intimidation comes with the territory – and extra mindfulness about security at conferences can help combat that.

"We’re usually receiving the threats," Ms. Harper said. She considers this one of the tamer topics she’s spoken on.

Their security concerns, the group said, appeared to receive little attention from festival promoters. SXSW did, however, reiterate its desire to host an event with an open and inclusive environment. Now, Harper said, canceling the panel sends the message "that they’re backing down."

That's not a popular decision with some of the other scheduled speakers. Buzzfeed, for example, announced it was removing its panel from the SXSW lineup in solidarity if the decision isn't reversed.

Caroline Sinders, the panel’s organizer, said she isn’t upset over being uninvited. Ms. Sinders has experience planning conferences, as she cofounded the coding, interactive art, and videogame conference FACETS. She sympathizes with the dilemma SXSW faces, but said the focus should instead be on what conferences should do in similar situations.

"This is a really hard space if you’ve never had to navigate it before," she said. "We are disappointed in their outcome, but I think this raises a really good question that we need to have now around security, especially in tech spaces."

SXSW did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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