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BuzzFeed threatens to pull out of SXSW after threats shut down anti-harassment panel

After the SXSW festival chose to shut down panels because of alleged violent harassment, BuzzFeed is threatening to withdraw from the show if they're not reinstated. In a letter to SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forrest, three prominent BuzzFeed staff members — editor-in-chief Ben Smith, publisher Dao Nguyen, and motion pictures president Ze Frank — urged the organizers to "support the principle of free speech" and bring back the panels, one of which is ironically about the problem of internet harassment.

"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," reads the letter, provided to The Verge. "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."

The panels, canceled yesterday, are both tied indirectly to the past year's Gamergate controversy. Panelists on one, called "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games," had been targeted with harassment after criticizing the movement. The other, which would have discussed "social-political" issues in gaming and games journalism, had a generally pro-Gamergate panel and had taken input from Gamergate hub Kotaku in Action. In a statement, Forrest said that SXSW had received "numerous threats of on-site violence" related to one or both of them.

BuzzFeed's letter is fairly conciliatory toward SXSW. "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," it reads. But it's still a major media organization threatening to drop out of a major media and technology festival, over a topic — hosting an anti-harassment panel — that's proving unexpectedly controversial.

BuzzFeed's full letter is below.

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.