Intellectual Freedom Debate: Why Megan Murphy and Why Now?

Posted December 16, 2019
By Richard Beaudry

In 2019, we seem to have crossed a professional threshold where discourse is still possible and ongoing but, like many other instances in our everyday lives, it is becoming politicized and polarized around rigid presumptions of someone’s opinion being right and the opposing viewpoint being wrong. There is no place for a middle ground discussion.

In the ongoing debate about the Toronto Public Library (TPL) renting a room to a third party and that organization inviting Megan Murphy to speak, there are a few items that need to be clarified. She was invited to speak by the Toronto organization Radical Feminist Unite and though her statements written on her blog are controversial, she is seen by the group as an important voice for feminism in Canada and the world. The Toronto Public Library agreed to let Radical Feminist Unite host a meeting at their main branch because, though Murphy’s views are controversial, they are not illegal.

When the speaking engagement by Meghan Murphy was promoted, it caused an immediate backlash, including by the Mayor of Toronto, who stated prior to the event that he was disappointed with the library’s refusal to cancel. 

The general consensus from the people who protested Meghan Murphy’s appearance at the TPL was based on her prior statements posted on her blog ‘Feminist Current’. 

The position of the Toronto Public Library was that the event was in accordance with its policies on Community and Event Space Rental. When contacted on their official Twitter account before the event (October 11th), they responded by stating: “We’ve carefully reviewed the rental request and it doesn’t violate the policy based on its stated purpose. The event organizers are also contractually obligated not to violate the policy. As always, we will take action right away if the event violates our policy or the law.”

The TPL’s decision to let the speaking engagement proceed resulted in specific actions being taken by certain groups. Three authors, Alicia Elliot, Catherine Hernandez and Carrianne Leung started an online petition that gathered over 9,000 signatures, expressing disapproval of the TPL for providing a platform to let Meghan Murphy speak. The petition stated that any author who signed the petition would no longer participate in events hosted by the TPL if the library let the Meghan Murphy event proceed. 

Here is where I must ask myself ‘Why Meghan Murphy and Why Now?’

Two events have occurred that lead me to question why some librarians, and specifically some academic librarians, have taken issue with Meghan Murphy speaking in Toronto.

The first one is very recent. On December 2nd, 43 academics at the University of Alberta came to the defense of an education lecturer who wrote on his Facebook page that the Holodomor famine was a hoax being spread by fascists. The posting led to condemnation by students groups and the Ukrainian National Federation of Canada. 

Some academic librarians have expressed outrage at the TPL for letting Meghan Murphy speak at a third party organized event. Granted this situation is somewhat different but the situations are similar. We have a contract lecturer, at a university, posting something that people found offensive. The community affected came together to protest what was stated.  Other groups condemned his posting. The Canadian government recognizes that the Holodomor Famine was genocide. This professor denies it. 

How different is this from the Meghan Murphy situation? She was invited to speak at the TPL and some people protested while others condemned her prior statements posted online. If any librarian or library organization supported the decision of the Toronto Public Library they were roundly criticised in posted statements and online.

The CFLA-FCAB published a statement of support for the position that the TPL was taking: “CFLA-FCAB Upholds Intellectual Freedom”. Part of the statement included the following: “CFLA-FCAB supports and promotes the universal principles of intellectual freedom as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which include the interlocking freedoms to hold opinions and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

In response to the statement of the CFLA-FCAB, three BC academic librarians initiated a second petition in BC. Part of the reasons for their online poll stated, “We are writing to ensure that CFLA leadership understands that these policies and the Board’s interpretation of them do not represent the views of the undersigned Canadian library workers.” 

At the University of Alberta, some professors supported Doug MacDonald's academic freedom and the university supported his right to express his differences. 

“MacDonald’s views do not represent those of the University of Alberta,” the university said in a statement. “As a private citizen, MacDonald has the right to express his opinion, and others have the right to critique or debate that opinion. It is our understanding that he has not expressed these views in the context of his employment relationship with the university.”

The President of the U of A Student Council released a statement asking that lecturer Dougal Macdonald take back his comments or resign. Kevin Kane, President of the University of Alberta Association of Academic Staff stated in a separate release that he sees this ‘as pressure for retroactive self-censorship’. 

So Meghan Murphy, as a private citizen, expressing her own opinion on a website she runs, is forever unwelcome to speak in public libraries? Some librarians, including academic librarians and some library associations have decided for the rest of Canadians that she no longer can speak in public libraries based on her prior posted statements? But the librarians and library associations critical of the Meghan Murphy issue seem to have no opinion on a professor doing pretty much the same thing. My question remains. 

The second event is another ongoing issue in BC schools about the introduction of the SOGI 123 (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity) program and the associated resources that are found in library learning commons and in classrooms. For the library learning commons community as well as teachers, this has been a hot button issue since the 2015-2016 school year. The program offers lesson plans, online learning modules, templates and tools designed to help teach concepts related to sexual orientation and gender identity. The Ministry of Education also sent funding for library learning commons to purchase SOGI 123 reading and teaching resources.

From the beginning, there were objections to the implementation of the SOGI 123 program and these included parents and outside groups. Using SD 35 Langley school district as an example, here is a timeline of events on the anti-SOGI 123 frontline and the people or groups involved.

Kari Simpson and Culture Guard

Kari Simpson is a social conservative activist and the Executive Director of Culture Guard. She has described SOGI 123 in ‘Light Magazine’ as “designed to confuse children by programming them to disassociate themselves from being male or female, boys and girls, and re-programming them to “embrace” gender fluidity and to be free from a hetero-normative society and instead, according to the SOGI agenda, “develop authentically, free of societal bias.”

In a presentation on May 30th, 2017 at the Langley School Board, Sue Hitchman, from Growing Healthy Families, did a presentation (“Have we done our homework? Redressing Langley’s New Mandate of Gender Ideology in the Classroom”) on behalf of Culture Guard. Hitchman concluded by stating, “Supporting SOGI creates gender dysphoria”.

The purpose of the meeting was having the SD 35 Langley rescind their decision to implement the SOGI 123 program in the district and remove the resources from the classrooms and the library learning commons.

After the first presentation by Culture Guard, parents, teachers, teacher librarians and student LGBTQ+ supporters held a peaceful rally at the SD 35 School Board on September 26th, 2017. 

Langley Parents for Inclusivity organized a second rally at the June 19th, 2018, Board Meeting. LGBTQ+ supporters, including local teachers and teacher librarians, attended the rally. The event was festive until the supporters of Culture Guard arrived. Based on the local press, none of the Culture Guard supporters were parents of any school children in Langley and some of them were members of the Soldiers of Odin based on their attire. The Soldiers of Odin BC group is an anti-immigrant and white supremacist group that started showing up at different rallies in support of Culture Guard and their Anti SOGI 123 message. They also attended other rallies in support of Culture Guard in Richmond as well as the Hell’s Angels group. 

With the arrival of the Soldiers of Odin and other Culture Guard supporters, the RCMP showed up in four cars to make sure that the rallies remain peaceful. 

As the year 2019 draws to a close, the SOGI 123 program is still offered in most of the school districts in the province of BC and the classroom and library learning commons resources are still available to staff and students. Culture Guard and its supporters continue to challenge the program and the resources. 

Missing from this debate on LGBTQ+ students in schools and library learning commons in BC are the same voices that have taken issue with Meghan Murphy’s presentations in Vancouver and Toronto. The anti SOGI forces in BC have made statements on social media far more damaging to the LGBTQ+ community and yet there has been no response from the BC librarians and academic librarians and library association who were critical of Meghan Murphy’s and critical of the librarians who have supported the stance taken by the Toronto Public Library to let her speak. Langley, Vancouver, Chilliwack and Burnaby house universities and colleges where academic librarians have been critical of Meghan Murphy and TPL yet they have not spoken publicly about an issue that affects schools and library learning commons in B.C.

So my question remains: What is it about Meghan Murphy that is polarizing some librarians and academic librarians as well as some library associations in Canada and why is this happening now?