In wake of the cancellation of feminist blogger and media critic Anita Sarkeesian’s presentation Tuesday night, more than 40 students, faculty and concerned citizens gathered on the Taggart Student Center Patio Wednesday afternoon to peacefully demonstrate the importance of first amendment rights and gender equality.
Sarkeesian’s presentation was cancelled Tuesday evening after the investigation of an anonymous email threat received by numerous Utah State University personnel warning that if the event was not cancelled, “a Montreal Massacre style attack” would occur. Sarkeesian later tweeted that, due to Utah law concerning the concealed carry of weapons and the university’s inability to search patrons, she chose to cancel her presentation.
Employees and students organized the demonstration Wednesday morning, hours before it began. Aly Johnson, a recent USU graduate who works with adults with special needs at the Developmental Skills Lab, said she posted a Facebook status to see how many students would be interested in holding a peaceful demonstration. A Facebook event was then created which drew more attention.
“It frustrates me that we still need feminism, I guess,” Johnson said. “We do — everyone needs feminism — but it frustrates me that people are still threatened with violence for just trying to say what they believe and make a positive change in the world.”
Several individuals in attendance emphasized the demonstration was not about gun laws but the freedom to express opinions on USU’s campus and the importance of gender equality.
“It’s what universities are for, this free exchange of ideas,” said Geoff Smith, a demonstrator and graduate student studying biology. “Without that, we’re nothing.”
Katie Weglarz, also a graduate student in biology, said the stifling of ideas is corrosive to the purpose of a university’s academic mission.
“It leads to a hesitation to bring potentially controversial ideas which restricts our ability to do research and scholarship and all of that stuff because if we’re seen as a university where those ideas are not welcome, we’re going to be restricted within the larger academic community as a whole,” she said.
Tim Vitale, executive director of public relations and marketing at USU, also said it is important for students to freely express their opinions and ideas on campus while emphasizing safety.
“This is what we do at universities: discuss matters that are important to people,” Vitale said. “And this is the free speech rights of everyone on campus, including the academic freedom rights of everyone on campus. This is what we hope to see when we bring speakers all the time, this kind of outpouring and passion. We want people to hear other voices; that’s what we bring to them in the classrooms, and we want them to be able to respond to the situations they’re facing and have a voice, whether in opposition to or in support of an issue.”
Tori Hamblin, a software engineer for the Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services, said although some may disagree with Sarkeesian’s message, reacting with violence is not the answer.
“This isn’t how we disagree with people,” Hamblin said. “We don’t threaten violence to disagree with people. I disagree pretty vehemently with Anita Sarkeesian. I think that her analysis has all the depth of a freshman’s English essay. But she’s still saying important and interesting things. She’s still talking about real things. Just because I disagree with her analysis doesn’t mean she’s wrong. You don’t threaten to shoot people for disagreeing with people. And if she’s a target, then I’m a target. That’s not cool.”
Ann Austin, the director of the Center for Women and Gender, the office that organized Sarkeesian’s visit, said the situation regarding the misogynistic threat deserved a response, which demonstrators readily brought on Wednesday.
“There’s just as many guys (demonstrating) as there are girls; there are as many oldsters as there are youngsters,” she said. “Our students are wonderful. I’ve had so many emails of support and it’s just overwhelming.”
Austin said she plans to contact Sarkeesian to discuss the possibility of giving her presentation through an online platform, like a video conference, because Sarkeesian’s message concerning sexism in video games it too important not to share.
“People misunderstand what feminism is,” said Austin. “They believe it’s the hatred of men, but its actually about equality, collaboration, trying to disengage those hidden barriers of discrimination.”
Sarkeesian, the founder of video blog “Feminist Frequency” has been under attack since 2012, receiving similar death threats since she launched a fundraising campaign for the creation of the video series “Tropes vs Women in Video Games,” which analyzes the depiction of women in video games.
Many other women have received similar threats as part of a controversy in video game culture referred to as Gamergate, which concerns the issues of sexism and misogyny in video games and gaming culture. This weekend, game developer Brianna Wu had to leave her home after receiving numerous death threats on Twitter, some including her home address. Sarkeesian and Wu are just two of the women who are openly critical of Gamergate.