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.
“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 universites 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.” 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.