SXSW under fire after cancelling panels on harassment in gaming community

UPDATE (Oct. 28): South by South West interactive director Hugh Forrest addressed the growing controversy in a blog post Tuesday night.

While Forrest did not confirm whether the cancelled gaming panels would be reinstated, he noted festival organizers are working with local law enforcement to assess the seriousness of the threats they have received.

“We want the SXSW community to know that we hear and understand your frustrations and concerns about the recent cancellation of two SXSW Gaming panels,” read the blog post.

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“The safety of our speakers, participants and staff is always our top priority. 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.”

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South by South West (SXSW) Interactive festival has come under fire after cancelling two panels meant to discuss the ongoing issues of harassment and bullying found in the video game community.

In a blog post published Monday night, the arts festival announced it was pulling the plug on two panels – “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community” and “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games” – after receiving numerous threats of violence directly related to the talks.

The panels were not specifically about “Gamergate” – the 2014 movement surrounding sexism and the harassment of women in the online gaming community – but they did feature female panelists that were involved in the viral online debate.

“SXSW prides itself on being a big tent and a marketplace of diverse people and diverse ideas,” said SXSW interactive director Hugh Forrest in a blog post.

“However, preserving the sanctity of the big tent at SXSW Interactive necessitates that we keep the dialogue civil and respectful. If people cannot agree, disagree and embrace new ways of thinking in a safe and secure place that is free of online and offline harassment, then this marketplace of ideas is inevitably compromised.”

But the decision to cancel the panels has created a controversy of its own – with many people suggesting the move validates harassment as a tactic.

On Tuesday, online media giant Buzzfeed released a statement saying it would withdraw its participation from the SXSW festival unless organizers reinstated the two panels.

In a letter addressed to Forrest, Buzzfeed president Ze Frank, publisher Dao Nguyen and editor-in-chief Ben Smith expressed their disappointment in the decision and urged organizers to find a way to safely host the panels.

“Digital harassment — of activists of all political stripes, journalists, and women in those fields or participating in virtually any other form of digital speech — has emerged as an urgent challenge for the tech companies for whom your conference is an important forum,” read the letter.

“We will feel compelled to withdraw them if the conference can’t find a way to do what those other targets of harassment do every day — to carry on important conversations in the face of harassment. We hope you can support the principle of free speech and engage a vital issue facing us and other constituents on the event.”

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