To ‘dispel the negative energy’ of sexual-harassment controversy, FanX co-founder Bryan Brandenburg is taking a leave of absence

Bryan Brandenburg, a co-founder of the FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention, is stepping down from helping to run the event — at least temporarily — following outrage over how he and other organizers responded to sexual-harassment allegations against a prominent Utah author.

Co-founder Dan Farr said in a statement that Brandenburg feels that leaving will “dispel the negative energy that is taking us away from our greater mission and goals.”

Farr said he hopes Brandenburg will have returned by September’s FanX convention, which draws 100,000 movie, TV, comics and video game fans to the Salt Palace Convention Center each year.

“If it takes me walking away to see something survive — it’s my baby — and I would rather see it thrive than to have to go through the trauma that’s going on now,” Brandenburg said in an interview with KTVX Ch. 4.

Authors and others who’ve taken FanX to task this week say this shows that the focus is still in the wrong place — on the event’s success and reputation, rather than on correcting missteps.

“They’re making it about emotion, and putting a Band-Aid on something,” said best-selling Utah author Shannon Hale. Her criticism of how FanX handled a female author’s accusation of inappropriate touching by Utah author Richard Paul Evans set off a week of public controversy.

“I would like this to be about making sure people are safe, and not just about people getting their feelings hurt,” she said.

Hale and other authors had contacted Brandenburg and Farr in private for weeks, expressing doubts about organizers’ dedication to stamping out harassment, even as FanX tried to promote a new anti-harassment policy.

Brandenburg, when announcing the policy, posted on Facebook that trying to address concerns while preserving the convention’s fun environment of touch was a “dilemma.”

“The same behavior some found offensive and was reported is welcome AND expected by many participants of our event in a Photo Op with a celebrity or at their Autograph table,” he wrote.

Hale and others said they saw Brandenburg’s focus on consensual touching between celebrity guests and fans as an attempt to minimize complaints by those who reported they’d been touched at FanX without giving permission.

They also criticized how FanX investigated a harassment complaint made last fall against Evans, saying organizers appeared to be focused on protecting him.

Thursday, Farr said he apologized “for any instances in which a participant has felt unsafe. We do not condone these behaviors, from anyone.” But, he added: “It is not our role or responsibility to judge any individual nor to disparage or use inflammatory language about any participant in our conference.”

The way FanX has handled complaints and responded to criticism is a good “learning example of all the things not to do,” according to Rebecca Nagle, a writer and advocate who has led trainings for the National Sexual Assault Conference and other organizations.

“What we’re seeing over and over again in the #metoo phenomenon, is all these organizations saying, ‘Oh, we didn’t know what to do!’ In the present day, that’s really irresponsible to not have things in place to take care of situations like that,” she said.

A strong harassment policy should not only make it clear that harassment is not tolerated, but also outline who will be responsible for investigating allegations — and it’s usually better if that is someone outside the core group, Nagle said.

“Especially when organizations are small, people can have that reflex to want to protect the organization,” she said. “So if it’s an author that really supports the festival, that brings a lot of people, when they’re doing the investigation, naturally they’re not just thinking about what happened and making it right — they’re thinking about what the impact is going to be on them.”

After Hale on Monday tweeted an excerpt from an email from Brandenburg — where he said, in part, “I’ve been sensitive to these issues for decades, long before it became trendy with #metoo,” the response was fast and furious. Brandenburg added fuel to the fire when he also posted a screengrab of the exchange, including Hale’s private email address, on FanX’s official Twitter account. (The post was later deleted.)

Hale was incensed, and said she was dropping out of this September’s FanX line-up. Others followed.

Brandenburg issued a public apology to Hale on Monday evening. Tuesday, FanX announced it would donate an unspecified amount to the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, and that Brandenburg and Farr would step back from social media.

But a day later, Brandenburg was mixing it up with members of a private Facebook group of FanX panelists, defending his actions. The comments were later deleted, but not before screengrabs circulated on Twitter.

“We absolutely could not publicly ban [Evans],” Brandenburg wrote. “We had no proof. We would be sued for libel and defamation from Richard. Then it would get out that you would be banned and humiliated from FanX for kissing a guest on the cheek and touching her. We would be out of business. Nobody would care to read the details. We did not see it happen. It would be her word against his.”

Hale has questioned whether organizers attempted to talk to people who may have witnessed the interaction, and whether Brandenburg’s statement means that allegations won’t be looked into if they weren’t witnessed by FanX employees.

FanX’s new harassment policy promises that every report of harassment will be investigated.

The female author filed a written complaint against Evans in October. According to a timeline released by FanX, they began investigating the next day, but did not talk to Evans until January 2018.

On Monday, Evans said he was “repulsed” by the harassment accusation, but acknowledged an encounter with the female author happened. “I told her she was pretty, kindly, as I said, ‘You’re pretty, that’s not going to hurt sales.’ I was trying to make her feel good,” he wrote in an email to The Tribune.

Even after his public apology to Hale, Brandenburg wrote on Facebook, “I don’t feel bad about saying, ‘No. We are not going to publicly ban [Evans]. If you won’t come to our event unless we do, maybe you should ‘sit this one out and see how it goes.’”

Robison Wells, an author living in North Ogden who organized an online pledge demanding action on an anti-harassment policy, said Brandenburg’s departure falls short.

“It feels very much like a half-measure, like they’re patting us on the head and asking us to say all is forgiven,” Wells said.

Debra Jenson, an assistant professor of communications at Utah State University and a frequent FanX panelist, sees Brandenburg’s departure as “a good first step.”

“There are some very raw nerves, raw emotions in the community right now, and I don’t think Bryan’s presence helped with that healing,” Jenson said. “His responses are often emotional and rapid-fire, and those are not always the most productive responses.”

Jenson said FanX must follow through on Tuesday’s announcement that it would put its staff through training in handling sexual-harassment incidents, and creating an independent board to update regularly its anti-harassment policy.

“They need to keep the promises they already made, and they need to look inward to see what other steps need to be taken to ensure a transparent and open environment,” Jenson said.

Brandenburg, 59, was born in France and grew up in Ogden. He had a flourishing career in the software industry, working at and launching several video-game companies. That’s how he met Farr, who in 2012 talked to Brandenburg about starting a comics convention in Salt Lake City.

They launched what was then called Salt Lake Comic Con on Sept. 5-7, 2013, at the Salt Palace Convention Center. With a celebrity guest list that included “Star Trek” icon William Shatner and Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee, the event attracted some 100,000 fans, a record for a first-year convention. Farr and Brandenburg started a companion event, FanX, the next spring, and both events grew in popularity.

Comic-Con International, which owns the San Diego event, sued for copyright infringement and, in a ruling last November, Brandenburg and Farr lost. The pair vowed to appeal the ruling, but in the meantime changed the name of the September event to FanX.

Another controversy swirled in 2017, when Brandenburg briefly floated the notion of inviting author Orson Scott Card, whose opinions against same-sex marriage rankled the LGBTQ community. The geek community was outraged, and the idea was shelved.