Tech conference at UM canceled after protest over Bannon speech

Former White House strategist Steve Bannon. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster/via Courthouse News)

A technology conference that originally scheduled conservative provocateur Steve Bannon as its keynote speaker in December at the University of Montana was canceled Wednesday because of an international protest to boycott the conference.

Also called ACE 2018, the event was the 15th International Conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology, which reserved space for about 60 to 80 participants in the University Center from Dec. 10 to 14.

The university was not a sponsor of the event.

Bannon is still planning to be at UM on Dec. 11 to give a speech about the role of minorities in technology and to have an academic debate with UM faculty on populism, the chair of the conference’s organizing committee, Adrian David Cheok, said in an interview Thursday.

“I think this will be a fantastic session and to show that we can have free speech in the university. The University of Montana can be a beacon of free speech where all around the world now in Western countries, free speech in academia is being destroyed,” Cheok said.

The conference’s website was updated to explain the reasons for the event’s cancellation, citing that an “anti-free speech fascist style mob” has lead email and social media attacks against ACE steering committee member David Levy, Bannon and others involved.

The website declares “a tragic moment in the history of human civilization” and calls the shut down “the trampling of academic free speech.” The updated website post was written by Cheok and the event’s organizing committee, and claimed that this was the first academic computer science conference in history to be shut down.

Cheok said that Twitter comments condemned the event using #boycottACE and that other researchers listed on the website were sending blackmail-emails. People on Twitter explain that the conference abused its academic stance as a platform for political speech.

Bannon was President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist until August of 2017, when he returned to Breitbart News, a “platform for the alt-right,” in Bannon’s words. He left Breitbart News in January and has lectured on conservative causes worldwide since.

According to Cheok, most of the authors of the academic papers submitted for the conference withdrew due to the blackmail and harassment by protesters. Research details and the names of the authors are still listed on the website, he said.

“Essentially all, except for a very few, of the authors withdrew. Some of them even said they were scared for their safety which is really odd. But people who are trying to support democracy are now causing professors and students to fear for their safety because of these emails coming in,” Cheok said Thursday.

Protesters wanted to bar Levy, who is also a scientist who specializes in artificial intelligence, because of his involvement in the International Congress on Love and Sex with Robots, which was to be held at the University of Montana as well, Cheok said.

Levy wrote a book titled, “Love and Sex with Robots,” in which he explains how human interactions with technology have changed and the future possibility of machine and human companionship.

All but three members of the event’s organizing committee have withdrawn as well, he said.

“I’m a believer in free speech, even if I don’t always agree with the views of Steve Bannon, if the university is not a place where you can have free speech, then where is? It’s a terrible reflection on society,” Cheok said.

Bannon still wants to visit on the basis of free speech, Cheok said, who said he’ll post details of the event on the website Friday.

It will be an academic forum with opportunities for panelists and the public to ask questions and comment on populism and the focus on pushing technology companies to train workers from minority groups in the United States, according to Cheok.

“I really think that this is a huge indicator on academic free speech and that’s why I want us to continue,” he said. “If we back down, then we’re backing down on 3,000 years of tradition of free speech, starting off in ancient Greece and the university as a place for academic free speech.”

Watch for updates on this story as they are available.