BuzzFeed and Vox Media* threatened to pull out of the SXSW festival after the conference organizers canceled two panels, including one related to harassment in the video gaming industry.
BuzzFeed said it planned to withdraw staffers from the event unless SXSW organizer Hugh Forrest reinstated the sessions. In an email signed by video head Ze Frank, Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith and Publisher Dao Nguyen, the company said it was “disturbed to learn” about the cancellations. In a prepared statement, Vox Media said it will “reconsider its participation in the festival” until the matter is resolved.
“BuzzFeed has participated deeply in SXSW for years, and our staffers are scheduled to speak on or moderate a half-dozen panels at SXSW 2016,” the company’s email said. “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.”
In a statement, Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff said it “will not be participating in this year’s festival unless its organizers take this issue seriously and take appropriate steps to correct. We will work to find an alternative forum for this conversation and invite others who feel the same to join us.”
The two panels were organized by different groups of people, and they were set to discuss distinct topics. One, “SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community,” is loosely affiliated with the online hate movement Gamergate. The other panel, “Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games,” was organized by IBM Watson employee Caroline Sinders, and planned to discuss broader issues of abuse within the industry.
In a post on the SXSW website, Forrest wrote that he was canceling the sessions because event staff had received “numerous threats of on-site violence related to [the] programming.” In an email to Sinders, he wrote that “preserving the sanctity of [the] big tent at SXSW Interactive necessitates that we keep the dialogue civil and respectful.” A statement Forrest wrote on Tuesday afternoon said SXSW is “working with local law enforcement to assess the various threats received regarding these sessions” and that it is “evaluating several programming solutions.”
One of the “Level Up” panelists, Online Abuse Prevention Initiative founder Randi Harper, has been targeted by Gamergate before. In an interview with Re/code yesterday, she said SXSW staff “[wasn’t] clear about what the threats were, beyond their violent nature.” On Twitter last night, Harper urged people on other panels not to cancel their sessions, saying, “Silence is not solidarity.”
BuzzFeed first reported the news earlier this morning.
Below, you can read BuzzFeed’s full letter to Forrest:
We were disturbed to learn yesterday that you canceled two panels, including one on harassment in gaming, in response to the sort of harassment the panel sought to highlight.
We hope you will reconsider that decision, and reinstate 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. Those targets of harassment, who include our journalists, do important work in spite of these threats.
BuzzFeed has participated deeply in SXSW for years, and our staffers are scheduled to speak on or moderate a half-dozen panels at SXSW 2016. 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.
Fortunately, the conference is five months away. We are confident that you can put in place appropriate security precautions between now and then, and our security staff would be happy to advise on those measures.
We look forward to your reply.
BuzzFeed Motion Pictures
And here’s the statement from Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff:
Harassment is an issue Vox Media takes extremely seriously. As a digital media company, our journalists often face online harassment and find themselves on the receiving end of threats. We support our staff when they encounter this kind of abuse while continuing to do the work that can result in it, and want to continue an open dialogue about how best to do so.
By approving the panels in question, SXSW assumed responsibility for related controversies and security threats. By canceling the panels, they have cut off an opportunity to discuss a real and urgent problem in media and technology today. We have reached out to SXSW organizers and ask that they host a safe and open discussion of these issues, rather than avoid them. Vox Media will not be participating in this year’s festival unless its organizers take this issue seriously and take appropriate steps to correct. We will work to find an alternative forum for this conversation and invite others who feel the same to join us.
On Tuesday afternoon, SXSW Interactive Director Hugh Forrest posted this to the festival’s website:
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.
The safety of our speakers, participants and staff is always our top priority. We are working with local law enforcement to assess the various threats received regarding these sessions.
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.
We will provide more information soon.
This story is developing. We’ll be updating as more information comes in.
Update: Post updated to include Vox Media statement, and blog post from SXSW Interactive.
*Vox Media owns Re/code.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.