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Aug. 3, 2020 | Monday
Editorials and Opinions
Libraries must be bastions of free expression
Cathy Simpson is chief librarian and CEO of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library. (File photo/Brittany Carter)

Cathy Simpson

Special to The Lake Report

There are many famous quotes about freedom of speech because it’s such an important principle and so closely tied to democracy and social justice.

One of the most famous was written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall to explain Voltaire’s belief in free speech: “I disapprove of what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.”

One of my favourite free speech quotes was made recently by Toronto Public Library city librarian Vickery Bowles; “I’m not going to reconsider supporting free speech.”

 This statement was in response to a question from “As It Happens” host Carol Off during an interview about Meghan Murphy’s talk at a Toronto library branch.

Bowles was explaining the library’s decision to allow rental of a meeting room to a group hosting Murphy’s talk on the impact of transgender rights on women’s and girls’ rights.

Murphy’s views are considered controversial by many individuals and groups. Leading up to the talk, Toronto Mayor John Tory asked Bowles not to rent space to the group hosting Murphy which led to Off’s question to reconsider the event.

In the face of this very public pressure, Bowles upheld the mandate of public libraries to protect free speech.

As she explained it, “We are a democratic institution and we are standing up for free speech. That’s what I’m standing up for. I’m not getting into a discussion about the two sides of this issue, or the three sides of this issue, or the four sides of this issue.”

This is truly the core of the controversy. We may not agree with your ideas but, as long as they do not devolve into hate speech, we must allow you to express them.

As a public institution, a public library’s primary obligation is to uphold the fundamental principles of freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression as enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Democracy and social justice die when free speech is denied.

Here at the NOTL Public Library, we’ve adopted the Canadian Federation of Library Association’s “Statement on Intellectual Freedom and Libraries” as part of our intellectual freedom policy. The federation’s statement and our policy uphold the Charter of Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the freedom “to hold opinions and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The Toronto library protesters and boycotters are attacking the library when they should be challenging the speaker with whom they disagree.

As Bowles explained, “Engaging in respectful civil discourse with people of opposing views may be a more productive strategy than abstaining from public library events. Libraries have always been committed to supporting vulnerable communities by welcoming and creating space for different perspectives rather than through censorship.”

The NOTL Public Library’s intellectual freedom policy aligns with the Toronto library’s decision to allow a third-party room rental by the group hosting  Murphy and the decision is also supported by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian Federation of Library Associations, the Urban Libraries Council and Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression, where Prof. Alvin Schrader wrote extensively on the controversy and summed it up very succinctly:

“The public learns nothing from silence. Shutting down open debate from public library meeting rooms doesn’t protect anybody in the long run from harm, oppression and discrimination. It does not advance social justice.”

We have our share of controversy in Niagara-on-the-Lake and many instances of people on opposite sides of issues failing to make the effort to listen, to understand each other or to at least respectfully disagree.

We can do better and the library and librarians are here to help. In his 2008 inaugural address as president of the Canadian Library Association, Ken Roberts had this to say about librarians and freedom of speech and information:

“We are the only profession whose value to society resides in a faith that people have the ability to make personal decisions that are good for them when — and if — they also have free and open access to all of the information that they might need. Our belief in the ability of people to form their own opinions trumps everything that we might personally think. This, to me, makes us remarkable.”

I’ve quoted several people in this article in an effort to explain a complex issue. I’d like to leave you with one more quote to ponder the next time you encounter an opinion with which you disagree: “I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”

I believe Oscar Wilde was on to something.

Cathy Simpson is chief librarian and CEO of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library.