This week the Toronto Public Library took a firm stand for free speech. Faced with calls to ban a controversial speaker from renting a room at one of its branches, it refused. Its chief issued an admirable statement arguing that libraries are in the business of airing differing viewpoints, not shutting out those that might offend someone.
What do you imagine happened next? Did community leaders applaud? Did City Hall back her up? Did authors and writers rush to her defence?
No such luck. Not in these strange, censorious times. Instead, the library found itself assailed on all sides for permitting hateful words to be uttered under its roof. Even Toronto’s mayor felt moved to say he thought the library was in the wrong.
The speaker in question is Meghan Murphy, an outspoken journalist who founded Feminist Current, which bills itself as “Canada’s leading feminist website.” She once suggested that a women-only Toronto spa should be allowed to bar a self-identified trans woman, on the grounds that women at the spa, which allowed full nudity, might feel uncomfortable when someone with male genitalia came by.
This and other musings got her labelled transphobic (she insists she is nothing of the sort). After she appeared at an event in the Vancouver Public Library in January, the Vancouver Pride Society prohibited the library from taking part in the annual Pride parade. Ms. Murphy has been banned from Twitter for her sins.
So, when the news went out that she was going to speak on Oct. 29 at Toronto’s Palmerston branch, a storm erupted. A writers group said her talk, titled Gender Identity: What Does It Mean for Society, the Law and Women?, could promote hatred against trans people. Their petition said they weren’t trying to take away Ms. Murphy’s right to free speech, just “deplatform” her.
The library workers’ union agreed that it was a mistake to give a stage to someone whose views “target highly vulnerable and marginalized communities.” The most surprising objection came from Mayor John Tory. He said that although it was up to the library, not politicians like him, to make such decisions, he disagreed with this one. His office asked library head Vickery Bowles to change her mind.
To her great credit, she said no. She argues that while the library wants to be a welcoming place for everyone, including trans people, its primary obligation is to uphold the fundamental freedoms of “thought, belief, opinion and expression as enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” The protesters, said a statement, were “asking us to censor someone because of the beliefs they hold.” That was something a library simply could not do.
Such a staunch defence of free speech is seldom heard these days. Far too often, officials back down when faced with calls to cancel, silence and shun. Ms. Bowles wouldn’t do it. Instead, she made her case.
Under questioning from interviewer Carol Off on CBC Radio’s As It Happens, she argued that it is far better to let conflicting ideas contend. A healthy “civil discourse” can lead not to more hate, but more tolerance and understanding. Safeguarding free speech and other rights, she went on, is especially important for marginalized groups such as trans people, who without it might find themselves confined to the shadows.
To hear such a message from a librarian was especially inspiring. Libraries are where ideas come for shelter. Their stacks contain a million views on a million subjects, many of them no doubt hurtful and wrong.
Someone is always trying to ban one book or another from the library, whether it is Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Fifty Shades of Grey. Libraries usually say no: Let people read and make up their own minds. The same should go for speech. Let people listen and decide. Good things, not bad, come from that sort of openness.
“If public institutions aren’t going to stand up for free speech and allow civil discourse to happen, then I don’t know where that is going to happen,” Ms. Bowles says. “I, for one, am standing up for free speech and I will not back down.”