An unprecedented number of public disputes have erupted across Canada in recent years about meeting room bookings and speaker’s events in the country’s public libraries. Most disturbingly, critics have ignored, disparaged, and frequently rebuffed the time-honoured commitments of Canadian public libraries to freedom of expression and unfettered access to library services. Prominent disputes and accusations have targeted:
- A public lecture by Sir Salman Rushdie, initiated by Edmonton Public Library as part of its “Forward Thinking Speaker Series”, who was accused of distorting history, maligning and blaspheming sacred personages, and spreading hate propaganda and Islamophobia;
- A “day of reflection,” booked at a Saskatoon Public Library branch, whose anonymous sponsor was later discovered to be the Campaign Life Coalition of Saskatchewan for an anti-abortion meet-and-greet campaign event for Saskatchewan MP and Conservative Party leadership candidate Brad Trost;
- A memorial service for librarian turned lawyer Barbara Kulaszka,well-known for defending more than a dozen free speech legal cases involving far-right extremists such as Holocaust-deniers Ernst Zundel and Jim Keegstra, booked at a Toronto Public Library branch by long-time self-described white nationalist Paul Fromm and founder of the Canadian Association for Free Expression;
- A public lecture by Joseph Boyden, initiated by Edmonton Public Library as part of its “Forward Thinking Speaker Series,” who prior to the event by several months had been accused of cultural “misappropriation” and misrepresenting his ethnic heritage, and whose speaking engagement had accordingly been cancelled for an earlier event sponsored by the City of Edmonton, Winter Cities Shake-Up;
- A children’s event “Over the Rainbow Storytime” led by drag queens at an Edmonton Public Library branch during the City’s Pride Week, who were accused of indoctrinating small children to be “trannies,” pushing “civics for Liberal morons’ children,” destroying children’s mental health, showing adult entertainment to children, and sexualizing children;
- A film booking at the Ottawa Public Library by “ACT! for Canada,” of an anti-Islamist documentary “Killing Europe”, whose cancellation by the Library on the grounds the movie was likely to promote hatred prompted the sponsors to apply for a judicial review;
- A public lecture by George Takei at Edmonton Public Library, also as part of its “Forward Thinking Speaker Series,” who had been accused by another male on social media just prior to the event of groping without consent more than 35 years before, in 1981;
- A talk on “gender identity ideology and women’s rights,” booked at Vancouver Public Library by self-proclaimed radical feminist and anti-transgender advocate Meghan Murphy, pilloried for “misgendering” trans women.
Speakers booked at other Canadian institutions have also triggered public outrage demanding that they not be allowed to speak.
While public controversies at other institutions raise serious questions, demands that public libraries deny third-party bookings of meeting rooms, cancel speaker invitations, and censor the use of library space for author talks, programing, and displays and exhibits merit particular attention. As publicly funded facilities and services for all members of Canadian society, libraries are founded on a commitment to intellectual freedom, freedom of expression, and social justice. Deeply polarizing subjects have long challenged and tested the core values, institutional roles, legal accountabilities, and time-honoured credibility of public libraries across Canada. Public libraries have been proud of how they have successfully met these challenges and upheld and progressively strengthened their core values. But in the present context, as in the past, critics are ignoring or assailing the interdependence of free expression and social justice.
My focus now is about those meeting rooms, speaker bookings, and the use of library space. The goal is to encourage awareness of how much there is to learn about the institutional accountabilities and the legal imperatives of public libraries as Canadian organizations, and what constitutionally protected speech includes and excludes.
My perspective is informed by the long and painful struggle in Canada over LGBTQ+ equality rights and a public voice. That struggle was not possible without the slow emergence of our freedom to be heard, and the power of our speech and our literatures to compete with and against the public cacophony of discriminatory and hateful discourse that for centuries had dominated public institutions including public libraries, medicine, especially psychiatry, faith communities, politics, policing and the courts, education, the corporate world, and, above all, the media.
LGBTQ+ voices eventually became strong enough to push back, defy, and drown out the babel of hate and lies and “othering.” Social justice triumphed through the supremacy of expressive rights, not in spite of them. We insisted on more voices, not fewer.
Accordingly, it behooves the public library world – by which I mean all library leaders and staff together with library governance boards, volunteers, staff unions, and users – to be knowledgeable about and promote awareness of the interlocking societal, cultural, demographic, professional, institutional, and constitutional and legal parameters within which public libraries function as accountable and transparent institutions dedicated to defending and ensuring access to constitutionally protected speech.
Effective advocacy on all aspects of library information policy depends on a thorough understanding of these complicated challenges. In particular, public librarians ought to do more to champion their institutions as facilitators, promoters, and defenders of Canadian civil liberties. Public librarians can play a critical role in raising public consciousness over the intimate link between public libraries and social justice in Canada. This is a link not well understood because very few public library leaders articulate and promote expressive rights as their unique brand. Once-a-year publicity around Freedom to Read Week is not enough.
The various arguments against controversial community and event space rentals by Canadian public libraries reveals an incomplete grasp not only of core values and library missions but also of the Charter and Criminal Code frameworks within which these institutions are statutorily governed and free speech is regulated. While public libraries in Canada and the United States share core values, American jurisprudence is distinct from Canadian law and tradition. In fact, the legal limits on free expression as they have evolved in Canada are poorly understood.
In Canada, public libraries are subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Public libraries further operate within the provisions of the Criminal Code of Canada, the Canadian Human Rights Act, and their respective provincial human rights codes. While many of us believe that public library boards are the appropriate governing mechanism, public libraries (and their boards) are not fully autonomous and independent entities answering to no one.
Institutional decisions, including those related to intellectual freedom are ultimately answerable to Canadian courts. The expression rights of all persons in Canada are at issue, and the library world must be informed, transparent, and accountable in the defence and promotion of our legal framework.
Public libraries also have an obligation to support, defend and promote the core values and ethical precepts inscribed in the foundational statements of the library profession’s national organization, the Canadian Federation of Library Associations / La Fédération canadienne des associations de bibliothèques.
CFLA / FCAB statements are not legal imperatives because librarianship is not a regulated profession in Canada with the power to impose penalties for breaching its rules of conduct; and accordingly, membership in CLFA / FCAB is purely voluntary and its avowals are non-binding persuasion and consensus building.
However, this does not mean such declarations and aspirations are irrelevant and meaningless in the policy landscape of Canadian public libraries. The Association’s foundational document “Statement on Intellectual Freedom and Libraries” acknowledges the primacy of Charter protections for free expression rights, and enjoins libraries to safeguard and facilitate equitable access to constitutionally protected views including those that some individuals and groups consider to be “unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable.”
Further, the “Statement” stipulates governing principles for community use of meeting rooms in publicly funded libraries:
Libraries have a core responsibility to safeguard and foster free expression and the right to safe and welcoming places and conditions. To this end, libraries make available their public spaces and services to individuals and groups without discrimination.
This and other CFLA / FCAB principles are adhered to by most public libraries in Canada, and are reflected in each library’s vision, mission, and value statements.
And in a companion interpretive document, “Position on Third Party Use of Publicly Funded Library Meetings Rooms and Facilities”, CFLA / FCAB addresses best practices and offers “ethical managerial propositions for the guidance of individual libraries and librarians.” The document reiterates the library “does not advocate or endorse the viewpoints expressed in meetings or by meeting room users” and that “the free expression being exercised [in the meeting room] does not necessarily reflect the views of the Library.” Moreover:
- CFLA-FCAB affirms controversial expression is supported in the library. Equally so, challenge to controversial expression is supported. CFLA-FCAB does not, however, endorse the exercise of prior restraint as a means to avoiding controversy in the library.
- CFLA-FCAB is mutually committed to intellectual freedom and to zero tolerance for discrimination, believing the two principles are mutually reinforcing.
The interpretive document also states that: “CFLA-FCAB recognizes there is a wide range of measures available to libraries to minimize and correct violations of the law, expecting libraries to exercise due diligence and avoid being wilfully blind to illegal behaviour while ensuring their fundamental commitment to intellectual freedom.” The American Library Association has a similar statement.
The term “hate speech” is often used as grounds to demand prohibiting an event that critics find disagreeable, offensive, or detestable. They may point to the prior reputation and personal histories of speakers or their affiliation with an extremist group, or to Twitter banning as justification. Sometimes they may condemn speakers and event attendees as “unsavoury types”; allege the motives of those who book a meeting room are primarily to push the envelope of public tolerance or garner free publicity; or claim an event violates the library’s social responsibility and inclusivity obligations and is therefore discriminatory and denies individual civil rights.
They also may argue that a particular view exposes marginalized groups and individuals as well as library staff to incivility or a potential risk of threat, violence, and harm, either verbal or physical, and therefore creates “triggering”, targeting, microaggression, and safety concerns causing that library to have become an “unsafe space.”
They may claim that unsubstantiated allegations of cultural appropriation, ethnic misidentification, cultural inappropriateness, or sexual misconduct are sufficient grounds for cancelling events..
They may claim that the grounds for meeting room rentals must meet the same standards and criteria as the public library applies to its acquisition decisions governing collections development.
Further they may condemn the public library as “materially supporting,” “endorsing,” or “legitimizing” unpopular views and speakers by allowing meeting space for them, or as having been compromised and “bought” by acceptance of a rental fee.
None of these, in themselves, are grounds for compromising libraries’ commitments to intellectual freedom.
The term hate speech has been used so casually and carelessly by critics of recent bookings of public library meeting rooms that it can reasonably be perceived by many as simply name-calling. Careless and unthinking overuse has rendered it an ineffectual label dissolving into imprecision and bombast. Where is the line between strong dislike and hatred? How can the intensity of expressive opinion be segmented into the acceptable and the not-acceptable? When does an offensive, repugnant, even hateful opinion become “hate speech” devoid of constitutional protection?
Critics may be extremely uncomfortable to learn how high the bar has been set by the Charter and the Criminal Code for pronouncing a verdict of wilfully inciting hatred – no matter how badly these frequent exhortations of hate speech fail legal tests and evidentiary thresholds, no matter how slipshod the popular press and some politicians have been in the use of the hate speech epithet in denouncing unpopular views and speakers.
As Chief Justice McLachlin wrote in R. v. Sharpe, "the conviction that the best route to truth, individual flourishing and peaceful coexistence in a heterogeneous society in which people hold divergent and conflicting beliefs lies in the free flow of ideas and images. If we do not like an idea or an image, we are free to argue against it or simply turn away. But, absent some constitutionally adequate justification, we cannot forbid a person from expressing it.”
Freedom of expression, however, does not permit hate speech, which is illegal under our Criminal Code. It specifically disallows advocacy of genocide, public incitement of hatred, and wilful promotion of hatred. But the Code and the courts have set a very high bar for what qualifies as hate speech. For the advocacy or promotion of genocide, it is fairly straightforward: calling for the destruction of an identifiable group by killing its members or inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction.
Public incitement of hatred must be communicated in a public place and be likely to lead to a breach of the peace. Wilful promotion of hatred must be communicated other than in private conversation, need not be likely to lead to a breach of the peace but must be intended to promote hatred.
As Chief Justice Dickson wrote in Keegstra:
A dictionary definition may be of limited aid to such an exercise, for by its nature a dictionary seeks to offer a panoply of possible usages, rather than the correct meaning of a word as contemplated by Parliament… in my opinion the term "hatred" connotes emotion of an intense and extreme nature that is clearly associated with vilification and detestation. As Cory J.A. stated in R. v. Andrews, supra, at p. 179:
Hatred is not a word of casual connotation. To promote hatred is to instil detestation, enmity, ill-will and malevolence in another. Clearly an expression must go a long way before it qualifies within the definition in [s. 319(2)].
As a further assurance that the hate speech provisions not be used casually to supress free expression, a hate speech charge under the Criminal Code can only be made with the permission of the province’s attorney general.
The law does not authorize or compel public library leaders to make such judicial interpretations as to whether an utterance meets the legal threshold of hate speech. In recognition of the value Canada places on free expression, prudence demands that the criminal prosecution of speech by the state be always regarded as the option of last resort. What we can do is familiarize ourselves with these statutory provisions as well as with relevant case law, so that our institutional leaders are able to intelligently exercise due diligence when they become aware of clearly illegal behaviour to ensure they are not negligent in dealing with it.
The complexity of this issue for librarians came to the forefront in a controversy about meeting room rental for the Toronto Public Library in 2017. As Vickery Bowles, Micheal Vonn, and Danielle S. McLaughlin have written detailed blogposts about it, I will not repeat their arguments here.
Many of the justifications for cancelling meeting room bookings invoke the dogma of pre-emptive action. This is prior censorship, applied in order to prevent public awareness of something: What someone is alleged to have espoused in the past; what someone’s prior reputation is alleged to be; what someone’s affiliations are; what social media someone has been banned from; that someone is an unsavoury type; that someone’s intent and motives are suspect; that someone’s action is discriminatory; that someone’s action is comparable to another’s, in this case a room booking akin to murderous tragedy; what someone’s safety concerns are and fears of violence and harm; if someone feels threatened or targeted; what someone’s ethnicity is, or isn’t; what someone deems inappropriate; what someone alleges was sexual misconduct; that everything and everyone and every viewpoint represented in the public library is endorsed by it.
To act pre-emptively to ban speech and speakers on such grounds invokes, without clear evidence of intended illegal behaviour, the doctrine of prior restraint, resistance to which evolved from John Milton’s famous 1644 denunciation in Areopagitica of the English licencing system for printing, and today forms the fundamental freedoms of individual expression and an unfettered press. Prior restraint is the most extreme form of censorship.
Who would exercise this most ominous power to restrict the public’s right to access, sanctioned viewpoint discrimination, on the right to expressive freedom? As the Roman poet Juvenal asked almost 2,000 years ago, who will guard the guardians? Within the recent past, Canadian public libraries have been embroiled in at least the following controversies over meeting room rentals and library speaker invitations: abortion, hate speech, cultural appropriation, ethnic identity, anti-Islamism, drag queen children’s story time, sexual assault, and transphobia. Presumably, a list of prohibited views as well as speakers would have to be drawn up and approved by governing authorities, which in many Canadian jurisdictions would mean either provincially created public library boards or senior public servants in government departments. What Canada does not need is more formalized dictums against unpopular views.
Safe space is another slippery term that is in danger of losing any coherent meaning through overuse and overbreadth of application. Recently it has been stretched from its original meaning of protection from physical violence into psychological and emotional realms, encompassing “trigger alerts” and an asserted, but essentially imagined, right not to be offended or to have one’s feelings hurt or to feel threatened. Safe space is not conceptually synonymous with social justice and social responsibility. Feelings are not ideas.
No consensus exists on what a guarantee of psychological safety might mean in operational terms for public library policymakers, administrators, and staff, not to mention library users. In this vein, the president of the TPL Workers Union, Maureen O’Reilly used the safety issue in slamming TPL management in the harshest possible terms for allowing the meeting room rental for a memorial service for a lawyer, Barbara Kulaszka, who had represented white supremacists, to proceed. In part, her adamant and very public opposition was motivated by concern that the meeting room event, as quoted in Our Times, “may challenge the safety of both the staff and the patrons in the library. And the fact that the library brought in a police officer offer and security guards and that the manager was going to be on site (managers don’t usually work in the evening) would suggest to me that there was a potential for a health and safety issue.” Again, prior restraint was advocated here instead of acknowledging and endorsing TPL’s meticulous preparatory planning on very short notice to ensure both staff and library patron physical safety.
Moreover, the public library is not entitled to cancel pilloried meeting room bookings on the grounds it can not guarantee physical safety except in the most extreme circumstances. Surely it is the primary responsibility of the local police services to ensure public safety, at public expense, in and around all public facilities, whether or not they are deemed agencies “independent” of government, including public libraries. This is, and should be regarded as, a civic and legal imperative.
Here’s the brutal reality: the inflation of projected harm with feelings of fear, outrage, and umbrage will not meet an evidentiary bar for the exercise of prior restraint by public libraries. The world is inherently unsafe and threatening and volatile. We prepare ourselves better if we acknowledge how unsafe it is rather than overestimating individual ability to make it otherwise. A guarantee of psychological and emotional safety is not a sufficient guiding principle for public library policymaking and decisions about meeting room rentals.
Critics have to become more comfortable with the uncomfortable. But that does not mean more acceptance of antagonistic views. As Oliver Kamm has argued:
The notion that free speech, while important, needs to be held in balance with the avoidance of offence is question-begging, because it assumes that offence is something to be avoided. Free speech does indeed cause hurt – but there is nothing wrong in this. Knowledge advances through the destruction of bad ideas. Mockery and derision are among the most powerful tools in that process.
Almost every argument about safe space and social responsibility is motivated by protection of the fearfully perceived vulnerability of others. Paraphrasing American critic Joseph Henry Jackson’s question about book censorship: Did anyone ever say, That speaker should be prevented from speaking because I might hear them, and it might be very damaging to me?
Attacking public libraries for their rented meeting rooms instead of challenging the pilloried ideas being promulgated in them is a misdirected and ineffectual focus. Safe space does not – must never – mean psychological and emotional safety from ideas and controversies and criticism. Such entitlement by critics to have the power to muzzle offensive ideas does not exist now and would spell the end of expressive freedom as it has evolved over hundreds of years. Only when there is clear evidence that illegal behaviour has occurred or will likely occur should access be refused.
Much has also been written about the issues of library neutrality and objectivity and impartiality in the provision of its collections and services. Critics decry public library neutrality as if it were an absolute dictum. Public libraries are accused of not living up to some notion of omniscient neutrality, and at the same time of abdicating responsibility for social justice. Historically, it is true that the mantle of professional and institutional neutrality in libraries has been misused to defend the status quo and extant power structures and social inequalities; services and collections about/for black, LGBTQ+, and Indigenous communities are egregious examples of past systemic discrimination in many public library operations.
To my knowledge, the library profession has never regarded neutrality as an absolutist doctrine but as a guiding principle to attempt to facilitate access to a diverse range of legally articulated ideas and perspectives. While respect for this principle helps to avoid content bias and discrimination in collections and services, public libraries have always advocated “partisanship” on core values. In this, they are inherently political spaces defending the public interest and the common good. As discussed in the CFLA / FCAB Statement on Intellectual Freedom and Libraries, libraries defend and promote their intrinsic contributions to citizenry and democracy. They support, defend and promote the universal principles of intellectual freedom and privacy; uphold the fundamental freedoms of conscience and religion; thought, belief, opinion, expression; peaceful assembly; and association. They affirm that all persons in Canada have a fundamental right to have access to the full range of knowledge, imagination, ideas, and opinion, and to express their thoughts publicly.
Instead of focusing on an abstract ideal of omniscient neutrality as a (failed) guiding institutional value, we need to shift our attention to the concepts of viewpoint discrimination, censorship, and prior restraint. Public institutions are required to be content neutral in their services and operations; for example, Elections Canada has no power to determine which individuals or political parties are permitted to register in an election on the basis of their stated views and policies. Similarly, for public libraries, collections and services must be provided according to established institutional policies and professional conduct standards. Moreover, critics of the neutrality principle also overlook institutional commitments to protocols for public complaints and reconsideration of current holdings, as well as for suggestions to add materials to extant collections.
With respect to the relationship between public library standards for acquiring materials and criteria for meeting room bookings, invited speakers, and other uses of library space, this is an interesting and provocative issue that deserves closer scrutiny. One justification for banning the Kulaszka memorial service, for example, was that if TPL collection standards had been applied to room bookings, the memorial would never have been permitted at a TPL library.
However, a simple search of TPL catalogue holdings does not support this claim at all. At the time of the 2017 controversy itself – and in the greatest possible irony – one item in the TPL collection, Did Six Million Really Die?, was a title to which Barbara Kulaszka was identified as “Contributor”! The TPL collection also then included Mein Kampf, in paper and multiple e-book copies; The Hoax of the Twentieth Century; The Dissolution of Eastern European Jewry; The International Jew; and 22 years 1980-2002 of electronic issues of The Journal of Historical Review. In the 1930s, Ontario public libraries reported Mein Kampf was their most circulated title along with Nostrodamus and histories of British royalty. More recently, Library and Archives Canada acquired a 1944 book by Heinz Kloss that had been owned by Hitler entitled Statistics, Media, and Organizations of Jewry in the United States and Canada. LAC’s position was that “it’s up to archives and libraries everywhere to educate and advocate for the most complete historical record possible, no matter how controversial or contentious,” and, paraphrasing, it’s not the role of libraries to choose only those records that portray past events in a positive light.
Another rationale for room cancellations revolves around public perceptions and optics. Some critics have charged – without evidence – that the general public assumes libraries endorse all groups availing themselves of their meeting room facilities. For example, a review of groups who booked Edmonton Public Library’s meeting rooms during a randomly selected one-month period reveals the following entities: Alberta Amphibian and Reptile Conservancy; Alberta Lepidopterists’ Guild; Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council; Alberta Mycological Society; Alberta Ship Model Society; Button Collectors; Catholic Social Services; Chinese Christian Missions Canada; Council of Canadians; Edmonton Buddhist Meditation Group; Edmonton Low Carb and Intermittent Fasting Awareness; Edmonton Star Trek Society; Oriental Cultural Community Service Centre; Society of Edmonton Atheists; Vital Grandin Chaplaincy; and Yasodhara Yoga Edmonton.
There appears to be no evidence the general public believes EPL has “endorsed” each and every one of these groups in any fashion whatsoever, or that the room bookings somehow legitimize their presence or existence. To claim, as fact, the mere speculation of institutional endorsement and legitimization is not worthy of further commentary unless and until empirical evidence of public perceptions is collected. Moreover, if empirical data were found to support such a societal view, it would behoove public library leaders and the library world in general to draw up comprehensive plans to generate a more accurate understanding.
In summary, none of the stratagems and rationalizations critiqued here solves anything, and 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. John Stuart Mill observed in On Liberty in 1859 that:
The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
One unintended consequence of silencing dissent is that it goes underground, these days on social media, which makes no one safer nor ensures that free expression is healthier. On the contrary, repugnant views flourish in dark places, unbothered by public debate and counterargument. And remember, at their extremes, right and left are indistinguishable – think Stalin and Mao and Hitler and Mussolini. As Margaret Atwood observed in her article, “What Would a World Without Public Libraries Be Like?”:
There are an infinite variety of tyrannies and dystopias, but they all share one trait: the ferocious opposition to free thought, open minds, and access to information. Where people are free to learn, to share, to explore, feel and dream, liberty grows.
Other unintended consequences are false martyrdom and free publicity for pilloried speakers and their ideas. Protests and criticism in the press and on social media garner thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in free publicity for them and their causes and perspectives. The result is the absurdity that prosecution – and even public library cancellations – greatly enhance the promulgation and the reach of hateful ideas. As pointed out by Mark Lane, “It is a sad truth of public life that when a decision is made mainly out of fear of controversy, controversy usually ensues.”
The worst damage inflicted by public library room cancellations is that the general public becomes confused, alienated, and sometimes more curious about a speaker. Some members of the public will be especially resistant to calls for banning, and all the more resolute in keeping an open mind. In defending the right to free speech, they will even be perceived to support hateful propagandists. In great majorities, the public favours freedom of expression over censorship unless and until a criminal line is crossed. In the case of the three contested Edmonton Public Library speakers, Salman Rushdie, Joseph Boyden, and George Takei, reversals would have deprived – and, I suspect, angered and frustrated – almost 3,000 Edmontonians from listening to these internationally acclaimed leaders and subsequently coming to their own conclusions; and in rejecting another call for cancellation, over 100 children and adults would have been deprived of the uniqueness and hilarity of experiencing drag queens library storytime.
Challenging Repugnant Ideas
What I have not observed in any of the public library meeting room controversies is talk of how to counter repugnant beliefs in the larger societal and cultural contexts of Canadian education, politics, and media. Critics should find more effective ways of challenging unwelcome ideas and ideologies than by trying to silence them through denunciation of public library meeting room policies, a grave and ominous distraction in the larger arena that turns activist energies inward and ultimately makes them irrelevant. Accordingly, I would ask critics to consider focusing their energies, passion, and ingenuity on the views of the speakers, not on the public libraries permitting their appearances. Outrage needs to be channelled more cleverly and usefully.
Raise awareness of issues, by all means, by injecting more, not fewer, voices into the public arena and letting society at large decide. Thousands of years of history demonstrate that protection and safety through censorship are illusory. There is no safety net against bad ideas other than better ideas. Epithets and labels shut down dialogue and debate. But there are teachable (and learnable) moments in public ambiguity.
What the library profession needs is better informed critics and advocates about the core values of intellectual freedom and social responsibility and their interconnectedness. We must start with the view that constitutionally protected expressive freedom is fundamental to social justice; they are not opposites, not binaries, and never achievable one at the expense of the other. We must recognize that those who try to restrict free expression must show it is harmful; that the legal test of harm reduction constitutes the legal constraints and limits on state intervention.
Two urgent advances would be especially positive for critics to regain a degree of credibility. One is for the accredited Canadian graduate professional programs to offer stand-alone courses on intellectual freedom and social responsibility; to my knowledge, only the University of Alberta Master of Library and Information Studies program does so, a situation that has always frustrated and perplexed me personally. In the fast-changing digital age, the increasing complexities of intellectual freedom issues and government policies at all levels demand immediate immersive educational initiatives in both our graduate professional and technical post-secondary streams.
The second initiative is for Canadian public libraries to be more proactive in promoting free expression as their brand. For example, intellectual freedom should be referenced in job ads. Edmonton Public Library has been doing this consistently for at least a decade for all staff levels except for shelvers; applicants are enjoined to commit to upholding two CFLA-FCAB position statements, the foundational one on “Intellectual Freedom and Libraries” and a companion one on “Diversity and Inclusion.”
But that’s just a start. Public library leaders should hold in-service workshops on intellectual freedom and social responsibility issues on a regular basis. More intensive explorations are also needed periodically, such as the 2018 all-day all professional staff speaker panel and staff roundtable discussions on the topic of “EPL Leader in Residence: Intellectual Freedom in the 21st Century” – a first in Canadian public libraries, to my knowledge.
In the final analysis, the library profession operates within overlapping frameworks: to society, to the library profession, to institutional core values, to legal frameworks, and to individual opinion. But these frameworks are not coterminous with each other. In particular, the personal can never pre-empt institutional, professional, and legal responsibilities. Accordingly, it behooves us to explore and understand their similarities and their singularities. Noam Chomsky has asserted: “If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all.”
But fleshing out what intellectual freedom means beyond sloganeering, means courage and patience and trust. Paraphrasing Ken Roberts, in his inaugural address as president of the Canadian Library Association in 2008, it means that:
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….
[O]ur belief in the ability of people to form their own opinions trumps everything that we might personally think. This, to me, makes us remarkable.
That is a powerful claim. There’s no “But” in it, no equivocation. It’s also a powerful risk. At minimum, it’s a claim to a balance of probabilities.
In my book “Fear of Words,” I wrote: “In the last resort, it is not the force of law but only the force of free intelligence that can save a people from its own folly. In this light, I believe it is better to err on the side of more access rather than on the side of less.” Although that was a quarter century ago, I continue to hold to the categorical imperative of freedom of expression. By no means is it an absolute dictum. But as a universal aspirational ideal, it’s the best we can strive for in a democracy.
We have to take the long view. Paraphrasing Nicolas Kristof in a recent New York Times column, we have to be mindful that to win an argument you have to allow the argument. Informed public library policy review is the place to start, and I urge all library staff and trustees to undertake this urgent work. It is not predicated on distracting denunciations of the intersectionalities of power, privilege, speech, heritage, education, beliefs and religion, ethnicity, skin colour, religion, gender, age, sexuality, gender identity, class, income, and so on and on. It is grounded in the interlocking foundations of free expression and social responsibility.
For the public library to silence a voice is to deny public choice, to take away the right of people to decide for themselves what they want to learn about and what they want to take away as new conviction or simply new awareness. In the court of public library judgments, accusations and allegations do not rise to the level of threshold evidence for banning. They must be subjected to the legal precepts of presumed innocence and avoidance of prior restraint and to legal tests for constitutional protection. Only then are they taking a principled approach in serving the public good.
Public libraries must protect the right of people to be mistaken. Accountability and transparency in vision, mission, and value statements as well as in leaders’ judgments demand it. To continue honouring their commitment to intellectual freedom in the face of outrage over unpopular speakers, public libraries must err on the side of a plurality of ideas and perspectives, on the side of more voices and greater access.