Planned event reignites debate about libraries’ role as forum for free speech

An event featuring a self-described feminist speaker known for saying transgender rights endanger women has reignited an old debate about the role of public libraries as forums for free speech.

Meghan Murphy’s talk — titled “Gender Identity: What Does It Mean For Society, The Law and Women?” and hosted by a group called “Radical Feminists Unite” — is set to go ahead at a Toronto library on Tuesday amid vocal opposition by LGBTQ community members and their allies, who say publicly funded spaces shouldn’t be used as a platform for hatred.

“If folks want to have those viewpoints in private, that’s fine … I disagree with what they’re saying, but they can say it,” said Gwen Benaway, a transgender writer and scholar.

“But saying it in the Toronto Public Library, in a community institution which has a responsibility to inclusion and diversity and to promoting the best in Canadian society? That, to me, is where I draw the line.”

Benaway was among those who spoke to the library’s board at a public meeting in a fruitless bid to change its members’ minds about booking the space to “Radical Feminists Unite.”

She acknowledged the role of libraries as public forums for discussion, but said those debates shouldn’t come at the expense of the safety of marginalized groups.

Benaway suggested that the library re-evaluate its criteria for renting out spaces, considering factors such as the credentials of the speaker, whether a diversity of viewpoints are represented and whether the events are being held in “good faith.”

But the library insists it’s important not to make that judgment call.

“As a public library and public institution, we have an obligation to protect free speech,” city librarian Vickery Bowles said in a written statement.

“When Toronto Public Library makes meeting rooms available to the public we serve, we need to make them available to all on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.”

Library criticized for its position

As for Murphy herself, Bowles said the speaker — a freelance writer who runs the website “Feminist Current” — has never been charged with or convicted of hate speech “as defined in the Criminal Code of Canada.”

Murphy has written that “allowing men to identify as women” endangers women and undermines women’s rights, and has said that gender identity isn’t real — instead, there is only biological sex and personality.

Critics of the library’s position, Benaway included, have pointed to a section of the institution’s policy that gives it the right to deny or cancel a booking when it “reasonably believes” the space will be used by an individual or group “that is likely to promote, or would have the effect of promoting discrimination, contempt or hatred for any group or person.”

But Bowles said the description of the event doesn’t suggest that it will promote discrimination, and after consulting with the City of Toronto’s lawyer, the library decided it wasn’t able to cancel the talk.

A string of authors and speakers have since cancelled their events at the library, including American poet Ben Lerner and Canadian writer Elisabeth de Mariaffi. Alvin Schrader, a professor emeritus with the University of Alberta’s School of Library and Information Studies, said backlash against the library is misdirected.

“This is just diversion, and serves the purposes of the so-called controversial speakers,” he said.

He noted that in some cases, librarians are forced to put their personal views aside to do their jobs.

“We’re very painfully torn by some of the controversies. In our private behaviour as citizens, we might have very different opinions than we do as librarians in upholding the people’s right to have access to a variety of opinions.”

Schrader has been tracking what he describes as an “unprecedented” number of public disputes about speaker events and meeting room bookings at libraries, and said the criticism comes from both sides of the ideological spectrum.

“The extremist language and vituperative rhetoric that is coming out of these controversies is indistinguishable, whether it’s coming from the right or the left.”

Debate over free speech in libraries dates back to the late 1930s

He listed off myriad events that have drawn public scrutiny in recent years: an event booked by an anti-abortion group at the Saskatoon Public Library, a memorial for a lawyer who defended Holocaust-deniers in court at the Toronto Public Library and an “Over the Rainbow Storytime” event led by drag queens at the Edmonton Public Library.

He said the debate over free speech in libraries dates back to the late 1930s in the United States, when some called for the banning of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” It was then that American libraries created the U.S. Libraries Bill of Rights, enshrining the protection of free expression in their very mission statements.

He said that while some argue that banning books is separate from the question of barring public speakers, many librarians see the issues as deeply connected because they use the same thought process in making those judgment calls.

“What they all come down to is trying to deny the general public an opportunity to make up their minds for themselves,” Schrader said.

“It’s a huge risk in a democracy, that people will come to views in good faith that respect the rights of everyone. If that were to prove to be not the case, then we would have much larger problems than who meets in a public library meeting room.”

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