Just before 7 p.m. on Tuesday evening, Meghan Murphy, founder of the Feminist Current website and noted skeptic of “transactivists,” took the stage at the Palmerston branch of the Toronto Public Library and said some mildly controversial things.
“Feminists built and funded transition houses for women escaping male violence,” she told the capacity crowd of roughly 120, who had come at the invitation of a group calling itself Radical Feminist Unite — Toronto, which rented the venue. “And now we’re being told … that having spaces for women to protect them from male violence is bigoted.”
She was referring to Vancouver city council’s decision in March to strip funding for the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter because it only serves women who are born female. It’s just one example of what people like Murphy warn is the danger of “self-identification” as the standard for gender-based human rights protection.
“On what basis do women’s rights exist,” she asked, “if the word ‘woman’ is meaningless?”
Nothing she said justified the massive crowd outside protesting the event, which forced those exiting to run a gauntlet of people yelling “shame!” or slip through a police-protected corridor. But this was the culmination of an extraordinary few weeks that saw some of the Toronto library’s staunchest supporters turn on the institution and its head librarian, Vickery Bowles, for allegedly tolerating “transphobic hate speech.”
Bowles has gamely defended the library’s commitment to free speech as an intellectual principle: “It’s so tied to the core values of library service,” she said in an interview. And she has defended it as a legal obligation, under the Charter, for a public institution to protect “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression.”
Both approaches have fallen on deaf ears.
For free speech purists, it might be comforting to think the protesters — perhaps 500 strong — represented a fringe group (who were themselves, after all, exercising their right to free speech). But if that’s true, it’s a well-connected fringe. Two arch-progressive city councillors, Mike Layton and Kristyn Wong-Tam, have a motion before Toronto city council on Tuesday asking staff to recommend “strengthening” the library’s room rental policies. Toronto Pride has threatened “consequences to our relationship” — presumably excommunication, which was the Vancouver Public Library’s fate after allowing Murphy to speak on its premises.
Freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression
To his everlasting shame, even ostensibly conservative Mayor John Tory got in on the act.
“There are thousands of places this event could be held in Toronto other than the public library,” he said in a statement. “When it comes to public buildings, I believe we should hold ourselves to the highest standard.”
That’s completely backwards. “The library is acting as a part of government,” said Bruce Ryder, a constitutional law professor at Osgoode Hall who helped the library update its room rental policies two years ago, after a similar controversy. It thus has a higher bar to clear — not lower — if it wants to deny a booking. “If this was private space, the protection of freedom of expression wouldn’t apply,” said Ryder.
Not all is lost. Gord Perks, another arch-progressive city councillor and member of the library board, supports the motion to revisit room-rental policies. But he excellently rebutted calls for outright cancellation. “The decision of the (head) librarian is final. That is not only appropriate, but is an essential safeguard,” he wrote on his website. “Elected officials should never have the right to decide on a case-by-case basis who has the right to speak in a public venue.”
Perks trenchantly noted that certain of his colleagues are constantly trying to defund Pride because it allows Queers Against Israeli Apartheid to participate — something often described as constituting “hate,” but which certainly does not in any legal sense. “City staff made it clear that while some were hurt and offended by the presence of this group, its presence did not constitute hate speech and was not a violation of human rights,” Perks wrote, inviting the library’s detractors to draw a fairly precise parallel.
The detractors declined.
But when it comes to the universal benefits of free speech, libraries themselves offer an even better parallel. In recent years librarians across North America have been standing their ground on free-speech principles against conservative and/or religious objections to popular so-called “drag queen story hours” for children. And it’s not just a Bible Belt phenomenon. In June there were tense protests outside a story hour in Brooklyn. Just last month in Ottawa, protesters stormed an event bellowing bible verses and accusing its host of “teaching children to be whores.”
One of the principal arguments against these story hours is that they are quite literally turning kids transgender. “The taxpayer is funding adult-themed performers to come and read to our smallish children in order to indoctrinate them into a political ideology about gender,” Sean Fitzgerald, who’s part of a campaign called “Stop K12 Indoctrination,” fumed in a video blog last year.
Indeed, many libraries were way out in front of LGBTQ rights throughout history, often over strenuous objections from social conservatives. They did that not just on principle, but out of a legal obligation that exists on both sides of the border for public institutions to protect freedom of expression. It boggles the mind that so many people now want government agencies to pick and choose what “deserves a platform” and what doesn’t — and that they think that couldn’t end in tears for their own causes.
It boggles the mind even more that they would blame libraries, of all institutions, for behaving precisely as they always have throughout society’s various marches of progress. But here we are. On Tuesday, popular Drag Queen story hour performer Fay and Fluffy announced they would henceforth boycott Toronto Public Library because it let someone rent a room and invite Meghan Murphy to fill it.
It’s a nauseating spectacle, and it’s far from clear where this will end up. Bowles, the head librarian, has been a superb advocate both for libraries and for Canada’s robust free-speech protections. But in a city where so many of the library’s supposed friends have utterly lost the plot, she concedes there is “lots of risk” for the library in standing its ground.
The Toronto Public Library Foundation is a registered charity, just by the by.
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