Campus Speech in the Crosshairs

Last night, Anita Sarkeesian cancelled a speaking event, scheduled for today, at Utah State University.

Sarkeesian, a feminist media critic who addresses the representation of women in video games (and does so, I think, quite brilliantly) has been a consistent target of violent threats for some time. Such threats against Sarkeesian and other women in the video games industry have only escalated with the development of the so-called #Gamergate “movement” (for a primer on Gamergate, check out this article). There’s a lot to be said about Gamergate, about the culture-war identity politics at play in it, and about how its most strident, misogynistic voices exemplify the paradoxes of fictimhood at its most distilled – they are at once shrilly pseudo-aggrieved while simultaneously they threaten people who are genuinely marginalized – but that’s not the purpose of this post. Instead, I want to focus on the background and circumstances of Sarkeesian’s cancelling her talk.

As Utah State University News indicates, Sarkeesian received threats prior to the talk, which the FBI determined were “similar to other threats that [she had] received in the past.” Among these was the specific threat of “the deadliest school shooting in American history” targeting her and other “feminists.” However, Sarkeesian – who has bravely and regularly faced down threats of violence in the past – cancelled her appearance not simply due to this threat itself, but because Utah State officials informed her that licensed Concealed Carry permit holders would be allowed to carry loaded weapons into the speaking venue. This is not a matter of University policy: in fact, Utah State law specifically prohibits public colleges and universities from banning concealed carry on their campuses. Although the State Board of Regents retains some limited authority when it comes to regulating the presence of guns for campus, this only extends to allowing students to request to share dorm rooms with roommates who aren’t licensed to be armed, and to maintaining no more than one “secure area” where guns are not allowed in which to conduct private “hearings” (IE, for grievance procedures, disciplinary hearings, firings, etcetera); that “secure area” ceases to be a gun-free space, by the way, the moment the hearing event is over. When it comes to a public event like Sarkeesian’s, then, Utah State’s hands are tied. And although Utah is the first state in the country to have laws like this on the books, other States are poised to enact similar ones soon, and Georgia (where my own university is located) appears to have already “accidentally” enacted similar legislation this summer.

Now, in case you’re curious, the requirements for getting a CC license in Utah are listed here. As these things go, the requirements are fairly high (in that you have to take a course with a certified instructor), but Utah also maintains reciprocity honoring licenses issued by numerous others states, including, for example, Georgia, where all you have to do is fill out some paperwork, undergo a background check, and wait about a month or so for your permit. In other words, beyond having that, a gun, and a willingness to show up at a Utah college and murder someone in public, there’s really nothing stopping you: unless you’ve already made your identity and intentions clear (and most of Sarkeesian’s threats are anonymous), campus security will wave you on in.

Of course, gun rights advocates will doubtless say that the presence of guns on campus should make things safer, rather than less (in fact, there’s a national Students for Concealed Carry group that makes this case explicitly). Whatever the statistical odds of dying in a “random” mass shooting, the primary threat against which Campus Carry groups advocate arming oneself, the situation with Sarkeesian is entirely different: she is being specifically and personally targeted with the threat of assassination. Against that backdrop, her desire not to have an audience containing armed people is eminently reasonable – and far more reasonable than, say, suggesting that a “good guy” with a gun could somehow manage to get the draw on a “bad one” before the bad guy manages to get a shot off at her. At which point, what is Sarkeesian supposed to do? Bring a gun of her own, and keep it in one hand to sweep the audience with while she holds a laser pointer for her PowerPoint in the other? Roll in with her own coterie of pistol-packing supporters, forming a human shield around her, maybe?

All of this is at once ridiculous, tragic, and terrifying. As I have argued elsewhere, the presence of guns at contentious public events inevitably changes the dynamic – there’s a chilling effect on expression, an ever-present implicit threat. Knowing that random members of the public are in your audience carrying heat is something that certainly should and will impact what you say, particularly when you’ve already been told that someone will show up to your event and shoot you. While I readily admit that I also find the prospect of ludicrously over-militarized campus security personnel toting M-16s and grenade launchers likewise toxic when it comes to impacting speech on campus, and in quashing student dissent in particular, I believe that colleges and universities are supposed to be places where ideas can be exchanged freely and without fear of violent repercussion. They should not be places where speech hangs in the balance of who’s better armed or who has the quicker draw – and certainly not places where a speaker should be silenced from the get-go by the prospect of having to speak in the crosshairs.

7 thoughts on “Campus Speech in the Crosshairs

  1. davidyamane

    Educational post as usual, but also as usual I have to raise a question, specifically about your conflation of the threat of “the deadliest school shooting in American history” targeting her and other “feminists,” and the possibility that legal concealed weapon permit holders could be present and carrying at the talk.

    School shootings are against the law. Someone intending to do that will carry weapons onto the campus whether or not they have a concealed weapon permit.

    We also know (albeit on somewhat limited data) that concealed weapon permit holders commit crimes at a lower rate than the general public and possibly even at lower rates than sworn law enforcement officers.

    I do not know what I would do if my life were threatened over my ideas. I don’t know that I would have the courage to speak publicly in any venue under those circumstances. But you note that Sarkeesian had been threatened in the past, so this was nothing new.

    Which means what was new was campus carry in Utah. Which, to me at least, means that Sarkeesian hasn’t rationally assessed the threat against her life. If she thinks she is any safer from a violent attack against her or a random school shooting on campuses that prohibit concealed carry, I believe she is quite mistaken.

    Reply
    1. Pat Blanchfield Post author

      Dear David,

      Thank you for reading, for the feedback, and for the reblog. I have some thoughts in reply (beyond those included in my most recent post) which I will post in reply to you later this weekend (I’m behind on replying to comments, but am eager to talk with about the issues you raise.

      Thank you again for reading,

      Patrick

      Reply
  2. davidyamane

    Reblogged this on Gun Culture 2.0 and commented:
    This is an educational post as usual from “carteblanchfield,” but it also as usual raises some questions, specifically about the author’s conflation of the threat of “the deadliest school shooting in American history” targeting Anita Sarkeesian and other “feminists,” and the possibility that legal concealed weapon permit holders could be present and carrying at her talk at Utah State University.

    School shootings are against the law. Someone intending to do that will carry weapons onto the campus whether or not they have a concealed weapon permit.

    We also know (albeit on somewhat limited data) that concealed weapon permit holders commit crimes at a lower rate than the general public and possibly even at lower rates than sworn law enforcement officers.

    I do not know what I would do if my life were threatened over my ideas. I don’t know that I would have the courage to speak publicly in any venue under those circumstances. But the author notes that Sarkeesian had been threatened in the past, so this was nothing new.

    Which means what was new was campus carry in Utah. Which, to me at least, means that Sarkeesian hasn’t rationally assessed the threat against her life. If she thinks she is any safer from a violent attack against her or a random school shooting on campuses that prohibit concealed carry, I believe she is quite mistaken.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Michael Dunn, Jordan Davis, and Anita Sarkeesian | Carte Blanchfield

  4. skydaver

    There are a few important points not present in this post.
    First, the law in Utah does allow for the establishment of a temporary Secure Facility if the USU administration felt the need to do so. The statement “When it comes to a public event like Sarkeesian’s, then, Utah State’s hands are tied.” is factually and demonstrably incorrect. I would guess that anyone could find this out in less than 15 minutes of research.

    Second, the USU police and the FBI determined that the threat was not credible.

    Third, no sign or law have ever stopped anyone willing to suffer the consequences of breaking the law.

    Fourth, data show that legal concealed handgun carriers are less likely to commit violent crime than the general public, and possibly even less likely to do so than the police (I think David Yamane also pointed this out.)

    Reply
    1. Pat Blanchfield Post author

      Thank you for reading. I’m working on a longer response to David’s excellent post, but I just wanted to rapidly reply to your first point specifically by observing that Utah Code Title 53B Chapter 3 Section 103, which I linked to in this piece (and which you may not have clicked through to read), describes the specific restrictions for when and how a University can declare a “secure zone” in terms of a “hearing room” (See also Utah Code Title 76 Chapter 8 Section 311.1 for more on this). What constitutes a “secure zone” is thus actually tightly circumscribed to private university functions, and public events like Sarkeesian’s do not qualify for that status. Likewise, in reply to your second point, the FBI determined that the threat was “similar to those Sarkeesian had faced in the past,” and substantive enough to warrant the present of armed security personnel on the scene – which is a far cry from saying that the threat was deemed “not credible.” As to the other issues you address, namely, the fourth point, about the supposedly diminished likelihood for potential lawbreaking by CC-holders: apart from the fact that this claim rests on data dubiously collected by the CPRC, I think that’s beside the point when it comes to specific assassination threats like those faced by Sarkeesian (as opposed to general wrongdoing) – or, at worst, it’s wash. As to the third point, I actually think that that is an problem that’s really interesting to contemplate, and that it deserves sustained reflection in terms of how each of us may feel differently about our personal security in our public spaces overall, how we feel about law enforcement, whether we trust them or our fellow citizens more, etcetera. For what it’s worth, I worry about a position that seems to ultimately be a counsel of despair that questions why we should, in essence, have any laws at all since people will inevitably break them. But I will reply to that in my response to David, whose more measured and less dismissive response I appreciate a great deal.

      Reply
      1. skydaver

        I’ll start with an apology for leaving the snark level turned up. That’s what I get for posting in the middle of working.

        I did miss your link to the Utah law (which I’ve now read) and was going by another writer’s (Larry Correia) response to the editorial in the Deseret News. In that, Larry said that the Secure Facility provision was worked out with the US Secret Service to address Presidential visits. To me, that implies that the Secure Facility could indeed encompass a large auditorium. Reading the statute, I still think that the auditorium for Ms. Sarkessian’s lecture could have been made a Secure Facility, had the administration so desired.

        As far as the credibility of the threat, the Deseret News wrote “School officials and law enforcement said they determined the threat was not credible, but that really didn’t matter. ” I read your link to the USU statement, and although that statement matches what you wrote, I interpret their lack of action to the threat as their assessment that the threat was not credible.

        I don’t think my statement about laws is questioning why we should have laws at all, but that is probably another discussion entirely.

        I do look forward to your response to David Yamane; I know for certain that he expresses his thoughts far better than I do mine!

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