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Transgender activists gather outside a Toronto Library before Meghan Murphy speaks at an event in this file photo from Oct. 29, 2019.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Toronto’s chief librarian, Vickery Bowles, found herself in the midst of a fierce debate over free speech last fall.

A controversial speaker, Meghan Murphy, was scheduled to give a talk at a library branch. The founder of a website called Feminist Current, Ms. Murphy has criticized federal legislation that would make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender identity and expression, arguing that it could erode women’s rights. Explaining her views to the BBC, she said that, “Under current trans activist doctrine, we’re not allowed to exclude a man from a woman’s space if he says that he’s female, and I find that quite dangerous and troubling.”

Her critics said she was spreading bigotry against transgender people, and tried to get the library to cancel her talk. Ms. Bowles wouldn’t do it.

She said that although the library has long supported trans people and their right to live free from fear and hate, it would not ban someone for her beliefs just because others found them objectionable. It was the library’s duty to uphold the fundamental freedoms of “thought, belief, opinion and expression as enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Making that obvious point, which not long ago would have been considered boilerplate stuff, put Ms. Bowles at the centre of a social-media onslaught. Several authors said they would boycott library events. Even Mayor John Tory said he thought she was in the wrong. She refused to back down. This week, in an address at Toronto’s Empire Club that should be required watching for anyone who cares about freedom of expression in Canada, she explained why.

Going back generations, libraries have faced pressure to keep certain ideas or authors off their shelves. Now, in their growing role as community hubs, they face pressure to keep speakers out of their event spaces, too. This, Ms. Bowles said, is part of a growing intolerance “for perspectives and opinions that are unpopular or not part of the mainstream.” With political divisions seeming to deepen every day and each side trying to cancel the other, we must stand up “stronger than ever before” for free speech.

For the library, that means welcoming everyone without judgment, even those whose point of view others may find deeply offensive. When we open our doors, she said, we open up minds. The sort of exchange that library talks are supposed to encourage can help to teach people how to disagree with each other in a civil way – “something we need to relearn.” What libraries offer “is a chance to engage in a meaningful way with our fellow citizens, to hear them and to make small steps toward understanding them even when, and particularly when, we vehemently disagree with something they believe.” Now is the time, she said, “when we need to hear more voices, not fewer voices.”

Activists campaigning for the rights of marginalized groups are often the ones who object most loudly to allowing speakers such as Ms. Murphy a place to speak. And yet, Ms. Bowles said, it is the weak and the marginalized who have the most to gain from free expression. Speech is their sword. When social-justice movements have succeeded, it is “precisely because their voices have been protected.” Many times in the past, “voices all too often shut down have been heard in the midst of powerful opposition, and with this, public perspectives moderate, laws are revised and change happens for the betterment of all.” In that sense, she said, the values of free expression and equity aren’t at odds, as they so often seem to be in recent clashes over speech. In fact, they are “mutually reinforcing.”

These aren’t new points by any means. Ms. Bowles would not claim they are. But, somehow, they have been forgotten lately. Ms. Bowles deserves enormous credit for reminding us that everything we have – our democracy and the whole way of life that rests on it – depends on the right simply to speak our minds.

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