SXSW Panel Controversy Highlights Free Speech, Diversity Issues in Tech

A decision on Monday by South By Southwest to cancel two panel discussions related to sexism in tech, gaming culture, and the bounds of free expression set the year-long Gamergate controversy newly aflame—and seemed to raise questions about the signature tech festival’s commitment to diversity.

That brief announcement said the decision was prompted by threats but gave little further explanation and it set off an explosion of social media posts, as well as opinion pieces and news stories that accused SXSW of censorship or cowardice.

Twenty-four hours later, Hugh Forrest, director of SXSW Interactive, released a statement saying the organizations had heard the social media response and is considering ways to how to handle the matter during the 2016 festival from March 11-20. “We are working with local law enforcement to assess the various threats received regarding these sessions,” the statement said. “Moving forward, we are also evaluating several programming solutions as we continue to plan for an event that will be safe, meaningful and enjoyable for all involved.”

The two canceled panels at issue were entitled ”Save Point: A Discussion on the Gaming Community” and “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games.” The Austin Police Department had been working with SXSW to deal with threats of violence apparently made against some of the panel speakers who had been involved in the ongoing controversy, dubbed Gamergate, the Austin American-Statesman reported. No other details are yet provided about the canceled panels or the future plans.

But Re/code, citing unnamed sources, reported that there could be a daylong event that focuses primarily on combating online harassment.

Let’s take a step back and elaborate on, what is Gamergate? And why were there threats of violence at the SXSW panels?

Essentially, last summer, a controversy over ethics in gaming journalism erupted into a social media war on online harassment, especially that of women in the gaming community. While some gamers said they shouldn’t be silenced by “PC police,” others said language that constitutes harassment should not be allowed. What followed then were violent threats made against women who were especially vocal against harassing behavior.

In making the initial decision to cancel the panels, SXSW alluded to those types of threats. (For a complete blow-by-blow of the SXSW saga, the Statesman’s Omar Gallaga has a good recap.)

The panels for next year’s festival were announced last week, which is presumably when the threats emerged in earnest. SXSW issued its statement to cancel them and a public outcry from panelists and others followed. Publications such as BuzzFeed and Vox Media said they would pull out of SXSW entirely if the panels were not reinstated.

Public pressure seems to have persuaded SXSW to reconsider. Stay tuned for what happens next.

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