by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Free speech has suffered a lot of setbacks in recent years. College campuses are setting up “free speech zones” that limit where students can express their opinions without the risk of offending their more thin-skinned classmates. Expressing an opinion online or telling a joke that’s misinterpreted can actually get someone fired.
In the latest example, the Austin music, technology and movie festival known as South by Southwest cancelled two panels after receiving threats of violence. Members of each panel had been subjected to such threats in the past at separate events, but the previous events had stepped up security and moved ahead (including at one event that I attended).
Cancelling the panels rewarded those who made the violent threats. Because SXSW caved, it’s not difficult to believe future events might be targeted and cancelled.
But we can’t fault SXSW for wanting to wash its hands of the whole controversy. The threats of violence were directed at both panels, and according to the moderator and organizer of one of those panels, Perry Jones, SXSW coordinators were forced to spend an inordinate amount of time fielding questions and complaints about the two panels. What’s more, SXSW is a much larger venue than previous events that had received threats, with more than 70,000 registered attendees in 2015 (including me).
Still, the idea that free speech can be shut down with vague threats of violence months before an event is disheartening.