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Lucy Flawless reads storybooks to a packed audience at the Jones public library in Toronto in 2017.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Gillian O’Reilly is a writer and editor.

Libraries across Canada have recently come under attack for offering family-friendly story hours featuring drag queens or kings reading children’s books about inclusion (a practice many had been doing for years). They have been targets of abuse from right-wing groups who falsely claim that such events encourage pedophilia.

The challenged libraries have refused to cancel any events. The chief executive officer of the Orillia Public Library, Bessie Sullivan, told the CBC last month that the callers who threatened to get her fired “pissed me off,” and that as the situation escalated, the library doubled down – adding a second story time.

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Backlash toward public-library events is not new. In 2019, the Toronto Public Library came under attack for renting a room to Radical Feminists Unite, a group self-described as “explicitly anti-capitalist” and anti-racist, because RFU’s panel discussion included Meghan Murphy – who is controversial for opposing transgender rights that she claims undermine women’s rights.

The city librarian of the Toronto Public Library, Vickery Bowles, steadfastly maintained the library’s position in the face of people who wanted her fired. She told the CBC that the most important time to stand up for free speech is when one is “in a very uncomfortable position where you’re defending perspectives and ideas and viewpoints that many in the community, or a few in the community, whatever, find offensive.”

While different in their targets, these attacks both came from people who disliked or feared the proposed events. The protesters challenged the role of public libraries – and their staff – in allowing these events to occur. The events ultimately took place anyway because of the libraries’ commitment to the principle of freedom of expression. (One of these protests included a tweet that libraries should represent the will of the majority. It is slightly creepy that it would be hard to guess which protest.)

Thinking about freedom of expression, especially in public libraries, is uncomfortable. It always has been. Libraries have worked hard to develop policies that allow the maximum freedom of expression within the bounds of Canadian law (hate speech as defined by the Criminal Code is not allowed) – to allow their patrons access to the broadest possible range of materials and the freest possible discussion of ideas. And that commitment can make many of us uneasy, myself included.

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In the late 1980s, as part of my job, I represented booksellers on the Freedom of Expression Committee of the industry-wide Book and Periodical Council. The FOE Committee maintains: “As writers, editors, publishers, book manufacturers, distributors, retailers, and librarians, we abhor arbitrary interpretations of the law and other attempts to limit freedom of expression. … Censorship does not protect society; it smothers creativity and precludes open debate of controversial issues.”

As it continues to do today, that committee spoke out for the rights of those whom others wanted to silence: schools that offered Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners to their students; Vancouver’s Little Sister and Toronto’s Glad Day Bookshop, harassed constantly by Canada Customs for importing gay- and lesbian-themed books and magazines; and the distributors who handled Penthouse magazine, to name a few.

A wishy-washy moderate, I privately had a hard time with some of the materials. As a woman and feminist, I prayed that I would never have to publicly defend an issue of Penthouse held up by Customs. (Our committee did get some amusement trying to figure out which of the two centrefold pages was the single one that Customs deemed obscene – the naked top half of the model wearing a parachute harness or the naked bottom half surrounded by folds of parachute material.)

Against my ambivalence stood the adamant defenders of freedom of expression – our stalwart executive director Nancy Fleming, writer June Callwood and civil-rights lawyer Alan Borovoy, among others. Without it, they said, the majority could override the rights of minorities and the marginalized. Political motivations could lead to violations of human rights. Unpopular speech could be silenced by those who felt threatened by it. And I came to realize that, uncomfortable as this made me feel, they were correct.

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Some Canadians may have felt it is horrific to silence Ms. Murphy, but fine to stop drag storytellers. Others may feel that drag events are delightful and Ms. Murphy’s views are repugnant. The hard truth is that freedom of expression in public libraries must apply to both, because otherwise, they will apply to neither.

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