Responding to the Crowd: SXSW to Host Summit on Online Harassment

South By Southwest Interactive Festival director Hugh Forrest said Friday the organization “made a mistake” canceling two panels related to the online and gaming environment, saying doing so “sent an unintended message that SXSW not only tolerates online harassment but condones it.”

Instead, Forrest said SXSW will host a daylong summit March 12, which will include bringing back the two panels at issue. One is “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games” with original panelists Randi Harper, founder of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative; Katherine Cross, sociologist and gaming critic; and Caroline Sinders, an IBM Watson interaction designer. The second panel is entitled “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community” with Perry Jones, founder of The Open Gaming Society; activist Mercedes Carrera; and Lynn Walsh, of the Society of Professional Journalists.

“Online harassment is a serious matter, and we stand firmly against hate speech and cyber-bullying,” Forrest said in a prepared statement. “It is a menace that has often resulted in real-world violence, the spread of discrimination, increased mental health issues, and self-inflicted physical harm.”

In addition to the two panels, Forrest said a number of other individuals have been invited to participate in other discussions. Those people include: Brianna Wu, head of development for Giant Spacekat; Emma Llansó, director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology; and former Texas state Senator Wendy Davis.

The decision earlier this week to cancel the panels resulted in an uproar on social media accusing SXSW of capitulating to those who would censor discussion about gaming culture and the bounds of free speech, especially in relation to the Gamergate controversy. Gamergate, which began last year, started off as a controversy over ethics in gaming journalism. It then 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.

Forrest said the initial decision was made in the interest of safety of all attendees. “We have been working with the authorities and security experts to determine the best way to proceed,” he said.

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