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SXSW Cancels Panel on Harassment Citing Threats of Violence

The popular South by Southwest festival said it was cancelling two panel discussions about harassment and the online gaming community due to threats of violence.

The decision prompted some big digital media companies, including BuzzFeed and Vox Media to withdraw from the festival — known as SXSW — in protest.

The festival — known as SXSW — said it had hoped that hosting the two panels "SavePoint: A Discussion on the Gaming Community" and "Level Up: Overcoming Harassment in Games" would lead to a "valuable exchange of ideas."

However, it said SXSW had received "numerous threats of on-site violence" related to the programs in the week since the March 2016 SXSW Interactive event panels were announced. It did not detail the nature of the threats.

Related: New Twitter Tool Helps Women Fight Harassment

"SXSW prides itself on being a big tent and a marketplace of diverse people and diverse ideas," it said in a blog post. "If people can not 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."

The "Level Up" panel was due to feature experts on online harassment discussing how to combat and move away from harassment.

The Online Abuse Prevention Initiative's Randi Harper was one of the panelists, and she posted what appeared to be the SXSW cancellation email on Twitter which said the festival had canceled sessions that "focused on the GamerGate controversy."

GamerGate is a movement led by mostly male gamers who say they are fighting for more ethical gaming journalism but which has become better known for its cyberattacks on female gamers.

Harper said her panel was "in no way related" to the the SavePoint discussion or about GamerGate.

"I've been receiving constant threats for a little over a year now. SXSW dealt with it for a week," Harper added on Twitter.

The SavePoint panel also was not explicitly about GamerGate — but featured panelists such as Nick Robalik and porn actress Mercedes Carrera, who've expressed support for the movement. NBC San Diego's Lynn Walsh was also on the panel.

Organized by the Open Gaming Society, the "SavePoint" panel was billed as a forum to discuss issues including "the importance of journalistic integrity in video game's media" — which appeared to put it squarely in the pro-GamerGate camp.

BuzzFeed said in an online post Tuesday that it could withdraw from the festival over the decision. "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," BuzzFeed said.

Staffers are scheduled to speak on or moderate six panels. "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," BuzzFeed said.

Vox Media also said it may not participate on the festival unless organizers make changes, according to a statement published on The Verge, which is owned by Vox.

The Opening Gaming Society said the "disheartening" move to cancel the panel came "as a shock." It said that SXSW had been in touch to explain the decision — which came after receiving countless emails, phone calls and social-media messages about the panels.

"SXSW feels that both the organization and its staff have been under siege from all sides and from all parties since they announced the panels," it said in a statement urging gamers not to attack the festival over its decision. "They want to encourage open discussions, but they don't want to fuel a vicious online war between two sides who are extremely opposed to one another."

The Open Gaming Society said the "intense" situation "grew out of control" quickly and that it was determined to fund and host the panel itself.