Why FIRE Is Wrong To Criticize Utah State For Anti #GamerGate Speaker’s Cancellation


Let me get this out of the way before we get started. For the most part, I like the work that FIRE does on free speech issues on university campuses. Universities are meant to be a place where ideas can be expressed freely, and all too often that’s no longer the case for many reasons.

I also deplore death threats and believe they have no place in political discourse, on either side of any political issue. Anyone who issues death threats for the purpose of silencing speech should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for terrorism because that’s what this is.

Now that all that is out of the way, let’s get into the story. A couple of weeks ago, Anita Sarkeesian, who is a feminist speaker and opponent of #GamerGate (if you need a #GamerGate 101, read Christopher Bowen’s piece on the topic) canceled her scheduled lecture at Utah State University due to death threats and the fact that Utah universities allow concealed weapons at universities.

The Salt Lake Tribune has more:

In a phone interview from San Francisco, Anita Sarkeesian said she canceled Wednesday’s lecture, not because of three death threats – one of which promised “the deadliest school shooting in American history” – but because firearms would be allowed in spite of the threats. Threats like these should be taken seriously, especially if it puts people’s lives ar risk. So it would come as no surprise to find that some venues, schools and other facilities may want to find out what is the best brand of turnstile, in the hopes of finding a way of increasing security. It is always best to be safe than sorry. If there are ways to prevent a potential shooting from happening, no one would vote against it.

“That was it for me,” said Sarkeesian, who has kept multiple speaking engagements in the face of death threats, including one last week at Geek Girl Con in Seattle. “If they allowed weapons into the auditorium, that was too big a risk.”

She also pledged never to speak at a Utah school until firearms are prohibited on Utah’s campuses and called for other lecturers to join her in boycotting the state.

The USU police and the FBI determined that the threats against Sarkeesian were not credible. Also, Utah passed a law in 2004 that banned universities from restricting guns on campus. Whether or not you like that law, that is the law in Utah.

USU police though offered to tighten security at Sarkeesian’s lecture:

Sarkeesian said she asked for metal detectors or pat-downs at the entrance of the Taggart Student Center auditorium, but USU police said they could not prevent those in attendance from carrying weapons into the lecture if they had concealed weapons permits. Though she said, “in hindsight, I don’t think I’d feel comfortable with any weapons in the auditorium.” The police instead promised more officers and a backpack check at the doors. Sarkeesian said she asked whether police could screen the audience for guns and let them in if they had permits, but Vitale said campus law enforcement officers believed that would have been needlessly invasive for the audience.

“If we felt it was necessary to do that to protect Miss Sarkeesian, we absolutely would have done that,” Vitale said. “We felt the level of security presence we were putting into this was completely adequate to provide a safe environment.”

In this era of where we read about police officers violating the rights of the citizens they’re supposed to protect and serve, it’s good to see the USU police try to balance Sarkeesian’s safety with the rights of the audience. However, this wasn’t good enough for Sarkeesian and she cancelled her speech.

It’s clear that Anita Sarkeesian canceled her speech to make a point about concealed carry on campuses and this is a political stunt, not a threat to free speech because the university tried to work with her on security. The university did their job. For more on the gun control implications, read this.

Now enter FIRE’s Gina Luttrell who on their official blog criticized the university for not doing more to prevent the cancellation.

Regardless of the specifics of Utah’s open carry laws, universities do absolutely have an obligation to make sure that reasonable steps are taken to protect speakers-particularly when credible threats are made against them or when there may be violence toward them for their speech. Utah State should have worked harder to ensure that Sarkeesian would be safe speaking on its campus. Frankly, it’s difficult to believe that this would not have been possible to do while also staying within the bounds of state and federal law.

What more does Luttrell and FIRE want USU to do? They tried to work with Sarkeesian on a security plan that would’ve been compliant with Utah law against a threat that the FBI and USU police deemed to be non credible and Sarkeesian rejected it in favor of a political stunt against guns on college campuses. Instead of attacking the university, FIRE and Luttrell should be attacking Sarkeesian for trying to frame her attacks on the Second Amendment as a free speech issue. At the same time, you can’t force someone to speak somewhere they’re not comfortable speaking for whatever reason.

The answer to attacks on freedom is not to restrict freedom. It’s truly disappointing to see organizations give the cover of defending civil liberties to those who are attacking freedom, in this case giving the cover of defending free speech to a woman who is trying to restrict the right to keep and bear arms on campus.

I’m one of the original co-founders of The Liberty Papers all the way back in 2005. Since then, I wound up doing this blogging thing professionally. Now I’m running the site now. You can find my other work at The Hayride.com and Rare. You can also find me over at the R Street Institute.
  • Christopher Bowen

    It’s VERY important to note that Anita has been putting up with these threats for a long time. This was the fourth time she’s been threatened with mass murder for speaking in like a month-long period (or close to it). After awhile, enough is enough.

    The other three times, the hosts were able to ban weapons. So there is a clear difference here, and I think the opposition to this – from many sources – really stems from 1) she opposed guns! Guns opposition bad! and 2) She’s a feminist! Feminist bad!

  • Kevin Boyd

    You have a point on the first part.

    The second part would be true if the threat was deemed credible. It wasn’t in this case. I fail to see what more the university could’ve done in this case that wasn’t in violation of the law.

  • Christopher Bowen

    A major part of what we do is about distrust of the government. That’s one thing.

    Secondly, put yourself in her shoes. You are a feminist (you’re gonna have to try on this one). You are used to campaigning for women who have a history of being largely ignored by the police, either due to workload backup (“We’ll get to that domestic abuse case eventually…”) or outright sexist beliefs (“… so what were you wearing?”). In short, you are unfortunately used to authority figures blowing you off.

    Bear that in mind when you hear what Anita said – and what the blowback would be if someone did actually shoot the school up (don’t get me wrong; no one actually believes it will happen, but if you’re the one giving the talk, “what if” takes on a whole new dimension) – because I don’t think it was 100% a political stunt. Yes, she has a very strong anti-gun stance. Yes, I disagree with a lot of it. And yes, the school did (I believe) everything they could within Utah’s laws. And I believe Utah’s laws are bad. But I think the conclusion here and through other parts of the internet is overly cynical.

  • Kevin Boyd

    I can agree with all of this and still say this is a political stunt, albeit one with sincerely held beliefs.

    Case in point is the most famous political stunt in recent American history, Rosa Parks refusing to go to the back of the bus. She sincerely held the belief against segregation, but the stunt was coordinated with the NAACP to draw attention to the case.

    They work, that’s why people do them.

  • Thanatos2k

    It’s actually worse than this. Look at the articles floating around about this, and almost no where will you see the actual reason that Anita cancelled the lecture (that she demanded the police ignore the law of their state) being reported. Instead, the death threat (from Gamergate, so they claim, though absolutely no evidence exists to support this) was why she cancelled.

    This is repeated everywhere. The political stunt was not to protest gun control – it was to pin the threat on Gamergate and accuse them of “censoring” her. After she got the threat the guns were just an excuse, she had her story ready to go and ran with it. And the press was more than willing to report it.