(NEW YORK)— PEN America today called an incident at San Francisco State University involving counter protesters at a speaking event by activist and athlete Riley Gaines a “disaster” that “makes a mockery of the principles of free speech that allow higher education to function.”

Gaines was harassed by protesters on Thursday evening following a speaking event organized by the San Francisco State University chapter of Turning Point USA. Gaines, who rose to prominence by advocating against the participation of transgender athletes on women’s sports teams, was pursued by a large group of protesters, only some of whom were SFSU students, after her presentation. She remained in a secure classroom for over three hours after the event while police determined how to safely escort her out. Videos of the incident show loud and aggressive protesters chasing Gaines down the hall, screaming sexist slurs, and blocking her exit. Gaines also claims she was physically assaulted.

“What happened at SFSU was a disaster,” said Kristen Shahverdian, senior manager in free expression and education. “Physical intimidation or violence is never an acceptable response to speech, no matter how hateful or controversial that speech may be. No invited speaker should ever have to fear for their safety on campus, before, during, or after their speech.  Based on video evidence of the incident, the protesters’ actions went far beyond any standard of acceptable protest, and crossed into, at a minimum, physical intimidation of Gaines, and perhaps actual violence. SFSU bears some of the blame as well: The video clearly shows that there was not adequate preparation for a controversial speaker like Gaines. Entrance to the room was left unguarded at critical moments; and the inability of campus police to extricate Gaines from a classroom for hours after the event was over reflects poorly on the institution’s commitment to protecting free expression on campus.

“Universities are sites of discussion, debate, and disagreement,” said Shahverdian. “From the protestors themselves to the apparent operational and administrative failures, what happened at SFSU makes a mockery of the principles of free speech that allow higher education to function. This is unacceptable, and anathema to how a campus should operate.”

About PEN America:

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org