Should Public Library Boards Embrace Intellectual Freedom as Their Institutional Soul?

Posted April 27, 2020
By Alvin M. Schrader

I want to first address the fundamental role and value of the public library in Canadian communities – its “value proposition,” grounded in intellectual freedom – and then make a case for intellectual freedom as the institutional soul of the public library. I will review the complexity of intellectual freedom as a boundary and balancing issue and comment on hate speech as a particularly contentious example, concluding with a call for the public library to brand itself as an intellectual freedom champion. (i)

My goal is to share ideas about public libraries’ core values and principles, particularly intellectual freedom, that library trustees have to ensure are reflected in their libraries’ policies. I applaud the countless boards across the country who, with their chief executive officers and staff, have stood courageously firm in upholding the highest governance standards of intellectual freedom in the face of sharply divided public opinion.

The existential questions for public libraries and their trustees are what is intellectual freedom? And why should it continue to be embraced as the fundamental framework for public library board governance? In turn, equally challenging questions arise: What does the public library mean to its community – to all residents, both the typically quiet majority and the periodically vocal minorities, to both its frequent users and others? 

I want to encourage greater awareness among my colleagues in the public library world and among library trustees who don’t already have intellectual freedom on high beam illuminating the roadway ahead. For those wondering why more attention should be paid to this issue, here’s a simple litmus test: When was the last time your board reviewed its intellectual freedom statement? And assuming (hopefully) that such a policy is already in force, does it reference, for example, the current Statement on Intellectual Freedom and Libraries as adopted in 2016 by our national organization, the Canadian Federation of Library Associations? Or are the library and its board silent on intellectual freedom? 

If there is a board policy, is it a stand-alone statement, or is it subsumed under some other board policy such as a collections development statement – reducing it to a policy within a policy, as appears to be the norm among public libraries? (See the CFE Library Policy Database.) Stand-alone or not, is the intellectual freedom statement clearly visible and searchable on the institution’s homepage? 

These same questions are equally germane to those jurisdictions across Canada that have provincial associations of public library trustees; disappointingly, some provincial trustee association handbooks do not even mention intellectual freedom, and none privileges it on their websites.

Here’s a follow-up thought piece for trustee (and other) skeptics: Write down the very first word or words that come to mind when you hear the phrase ‘intellectual freedom’. Now share that top-of-mind word or phrase with a colleague enlisted to do the same. And a subsequent thought piece: What does the public library mean to its trustees (whether you are one or not)? Where does intellectual freedom fit into board oversight?      

Just to be clear we’re on the same page, and in anticipation of possible confusion triggered by antithetical claims promoted by critics of free speech, intellectual freedom is the most commonly-used phrase within librarianship to name essentially the same concept captured in phrases more familiar to the general public such as freedom of expression, free expression, expressive freedom, free speech, or freedom to read. (ii)

The Value Proposition of the Public Library

As I indicated above, the existential question for public libraries is what is their raison d’être. What is their “value proposition”? A project for the Canadian Library Association I undertook with Michael R. Brundin revealed some common themes in how people across the country regard the public library. They describe it variously as a civic stage; a community centre; a local gateway to knowledge; a community commons; a civic commons, a community hub; a community space; idea champions; beacons of cohesion, connection, and community; bridges that connect us all; critical infrastructure; social infrastructure; the heart of the community; the heart and soul of our community; a family; a welcoming and inclusive centre of social innovation and change; a living force for education and culture; a centre for lifelong and self-directed learning; and as an essential agent for fostering peace and spiritual welfare. Interestingly these descriptions are similar to those used by the International Federation of Library Association’s IFLA/UNESCO Public Library Manifesto

These descriptors are not empty rhetoric. The word “public” continues to be embedded in its very name because the public library serves as a site for all members of the community to self-engage; as a site where each one individually charts infinite possible pathways for collective and personal knowledge exchange and creation, in affirmation of the human right to the free development of personality as recognized by Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In a metaphor that particularly captures this essence, long-time U.S. senator and honorary member of the American Library Association Wendell Ford said, "If information is the currency of democracy, then libraries are the banks." 

As Laura Raicovich observes in her article, “Why Libraries Have a Public Spirit that Most Museums Lack”, public libraries do not function as a realm of top-down, abstracted expertise and authority (professional knowledge in librarianship notwithstanding about how information is optimally organized and discovered). In library programming, for example, audiences are participants and co-creators of their own knowledge. They are not passive recipients of collected knowledge but explorers and final evaluators of it. No third-party tells them what “correct thinking” must be, and there’s no external reward system measuring and adjudicating what each audience member has taken away from a program. 

The public library endures as the last remaining indoor (and digital) cultural space that is non-judgmental, unrestricted, freely, equally, and openly accessible to all members of the community regardless of personal characteristics and intersectionalities. Eric Klinenberg expressed a similar perspective in his 2018 book Palaces for the People, arguing that the public library works well as “social infrastructure” not only because of its accessible physical space but also because of its extensive programming that fosters social cohesion among clients who might otherwise keep to themselves, which is organized on a “principle commitment to openness and inclusivity.”

In a word, public libraries offer community – a human community of thinkers. But they do more than that: They offer self-determining and informing community.

Unlike social media, the public library affirms autonomous, self-formative choices by community members from open-ended cultural pool of expressive knowledge, imagination, ideas, and opinion. Unlike social media, the public library does not employ unknowable computer algorithms to customize and atomize each person’s digital reality into an airtight bubble starkly incongruent with their every neighbour’s. 

Public library users make their own choices. Former Canadian Library Association president Ken Roberts put it this way: 

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 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.

This is a powerful claim. And a powerful risk, the same risk that confronts liberal democracy itself. Free speech is about distrusting the “wisdom” self-proclaimed by those who believe they should decide for you what you can say, and hear, view and read, play with, and have access to, and what you can’t – however well-intentioned they might think they are being. Trust in collective self-governance requires the long view, for both the body politic and the public library. And the long view is fundamentally grounded in intellectual freedom. 

The collective value proposition of the public library as a community institution is not self-serving rhetoric casually tossed around by supporters. It is the most common form of cultural activity in which Canadians engage. Every day, thousands of times a day, community members, adult and child alike, vote with their feet (physical as well as digital) to share in the body politic and seek self-fulfillment, information, data, knowledge, and personal truth. 

More people visit their public libraries in a year than go to movie theatres. This is as true now as it was twenty years ago when Michael R. Brundin and I determined that twice as many people went to libraries as to the movies, and there were seven times more libraries in Canada than Tim Hortons and McDonald’s combined.

The public engagements with their libraries should always be remembered by detractors. Public libraries, though modestly funded, continually “punch well above their weight” in service provision, social and economic impact, and capacity to improve the quality of life and well-being of community members. 

What other public institution describes its supporters as “___ lovers” in the way the public library habitually, and unashamedly, refers to its users and allies as “library lovers”?

Intellectual Freedom as the Institutional Soul of the Public Library

It is essential that public library boards and provincial associations explore policy positions on intellectual freedom and other core values, because policy is always shaped by collective and individual values, whether explicitly articulated or tacit knowledge and beliefs. Shifting nuances, conceptual complexities, and the clash of contrary opinions demand regular – in fact, never-ending – dialogue for informed policy development by public library trustees.

This imperative for both them and their communities – to be able to explore all viewpoints without external restriction – makes intellectual freedom policy the public library’s institutional soul. It is the primary corrective to one-sided agendas and totalizing condemnations by free speech critics that are intended to marginalize and silence unpopular ideas, collections, programs, services, policies, or speakers. 

Not by coincidence, the Supreme Court of Canada, through several court cases over the past thirty years, provides insights into three key principles that shed light on why intellectual freedom is so fundamental to the Canadian body politic – and therefore to the public library.

One principle is that freedom of expression is instrumental to democratic governance and citizen participation in social and political decision-making. Another is that unfettered discourse fosters individual self-fulfillment and self-actualization, and thus directly engages individual human dignity. And a third is that the open exchange of ideas encourages the search for knowledge and truth; intellectual freedom is the only pathway to individual and collective truth-seeking.

It is disturbing to learn that some critics – including, sadly, some library workers and trustees – say they have given up on intellectual freedom, arguing it is not a human right at all but merely an “ideology.” To them, intellectual freedom seems a threat to social justice and must be supplanted by censorship in the name of equity and inclusion. 

Their well-intentioned position undermines the possibility of social justice, as intellectual freedom is essential to equity and inclusion, not an obstacle to it. It is the fundamental means by which authority, the status quo, conventional wisdom, orthodoxies, mainstream values, and cherished beliefs can be confronted, examined, debated, and ameliorated. Achieving social justice without – in spite of – intellectual freedom is inconceivable. 

Addressing violations of human rights requires bearing witness through intellectual freedom. As Toronto Public Library City Librarian Vickery Bowles said in a speech to the Empire Club of Canada in early 2020, “The public library was founded on the social justice principles of equity and inclusion, and these are the values that guide us in the work that we do each and every day.” Denying intellectual freedom as a universal human right in public library policy development is a slippery slope to violation of civil liberties and greater societal injustice.

That said, while intellectual freedom is a necessary condition for social justice, it is not a sufficient condition. Many supporters of intellectual freedom openly acknowledge that “free market” liberal democracy has been failing the body politic for some decades, particularly vulnerable minorities, and that variously named wild west capitalism, uncontrolled capitalism, late-stage capitalism, predatory capitalism, disaster capitalism, to use Naomi Klein’s phrase – is egregiously dysfunctional. This current form of capitalist democracy, having metastasized into an uncontrollable malignancy, relies on a willful manufacturing of public opinion that normalizes social and economic policies that enable and ensure the economic ascendancy of the 1% at the expense of the vast majority of humanity. 

But the safety net against bad ideas is always better ideas, more debate and more intellectual freedom to oppose those bad ideas. This is especially true for those on the margins of social power, as many have argued before me. The constitutional right to free expression protects the freedom of marginalized minorities and their allies to challenge inequality and discrimination.

An instructive case in point is the virulent homophobia rampant in Alberta in the 1990s, vestiges of which remain prominent in the 21st century as young people there have become proxy targets for social conservatives still fixated on contesting sexual and gender minorities’ human rights. Rather than opposing the extreme anti-gay prejudice of the most prominent and powerful politicians of the day, Premier Ralph Klein and his political allies – with the province’s mainstream media playing well-trained handmaid – flaunted and strutted their longstanding hatred for LGBTQ people so openly and blatantly that everyone could see and hear and smell it. The extremism of their views shocked and appalled the majority of Albertans, especially younger people, eventually bringing this cynical scapegoating into widespread disrepute. Shining light on extremism was the only way to see it widely discredited and public discourse disinfected. Our voices and those of allies eventually became strong enough to push back, defy, and overcome Klein’s manufactured babel of hatred, lies, slander, obfuscation, misinformation, and “othering.” 

This painful experience highlights the historical reality that intellectual freedom is not to blame when minorities are marginalized and victimized. On the contrary, it is the absence of intellectual freedom that is responsible. The culprit is a pervasive cultural climate characterized by narrowly defined social borders, taboos, and fears constraining severely what can be safely talked about in the public sphere. This level of political oppression was not confined to Alberta: It infected other Canadian jurisdictions as well as the federal civil service, policing, military defence, and expressive materials importation.

I will say with confidence that there are no examples in history of too much freedom of expression – indeed, there are, tragically, many of the opposite feature, namely, so little free speech that authoritarian, autocratic, essentially lawless regimes could burn books and critics with impunity. The ultimate guardians in an open society are the abilities to express, to challenge, to protest, to mobilize, and to use the ballot box. For better or worse, that’s all we have. That, and at the local community level, the aspirational power that the public library helps make possible. 

Indeed, some observers consider the public library to be a key public institution capable of aiding people in their resistance to an increasingly stratified and privatized Canadian society, strengthening the push for equity, diversity, and inclusion through literacy and knowledge access to rich repositories of ideas and information.         

Intellectual Freedom as a Boundary and Balancing Issue for the Public Library

In liberal democracy, there are always boundary issues around intellectual freedom. They issue from the absence – more precisely, the impossibility – of drawing a bright line between what is tolerable in society and what is intolerable, between the politically defensible and the legally indefensible. This is as true for the public library as it is within the body politic more broadly, because intellectual freedom encompasses a swirling multiplicity of power relations within the community among competing voices, opinions, perceptions, impressions, feelings, positions, values, principles, intentions, goals, agendas, perspectives, beliefs, viewpoints, understandings, and truths – a babel of words and ideas. 

As if drawing an arbitrary line around unspeakable speech were not complex enough, the boundary challenge is even more complicated because intellectual freedom is a continuum, and therefore expansive and evolving. Boundaries shift. Public opinion bends. Laws are reformed.

In Canadian jurisprudence, the notion of an elastic approach to intellectual freedom – of evolving boundaries – is traced back to the “living tree doctrine” articulated in the landmark “Persons Case” in 1929, when it was invoked to rebut the presumption that the British North America Act’s exclusion of women as persons eligible for appointment to the Canadian Senate. Now deeply entrenched as a core principle of Canadian constitutional law, the living tree doctrine declared the constitution to be organic, capable of growth and expansion, within certain fixed limits (though unspecified at the time), through “a large, liberal, and comprehensive” spirit of interpretation. This Canadian approach is in dramatic contrast to the doctrine of rigid constitutional “originalism” far too prevalent in contemporary U.S. jurisprudence.

When the living tree doctrine is applied to intellectual freedom in the public library, particularly since the Canadian Charter came into force some four decades ago, evolving boundary issues are immediately apparent, and trustees are forced to confront the fundamental questions of where and how to draw a line. What authority would be empowered to draw up a list of prohibited opinions and beliefs? And by whom or what would such an authority be held in check? As I reminded readers in my previous CFE blog post, the Roman poet Juvenal asked rhetorically almost 2,000 years ago, who would guard the guardians? 

In Canada, rather than for the public library to be charged with drawing an arbitrary line of demarcation around what is forbidden, we are pointed to the notion of a balancing of civil liberties, especially where two rights are in conflict with each other. The ultimate arbiter of balancing issues is constitutional law and the courts. Indeed, the onus on balance is embedded in the very first section of the Canadian Charter, wherein rights and freedoms are subjected to a fundamentally decisive test of constitutional limits in Canadian society: 1) Are the limits reasonable as prescribed by law? and 2) Are the limits demonstrably justified in a democracy?

While the world acknowledges legitimate constitutional limits on intellectual freedom, some library-based critics of free expression have nonetheless accused its supporters of ideological absolutism (never defined) and painted them as extremists and authoritarians opposed to “human rights.” When you scratch the surface of their criticisms, some will tell you proudly that they privilege social justice over freedom of expression, that social justice will triumph in spite of intellectual freedom. They are frustrated and angry that social justice goals have not been “achieved,” and the lesson they take from this is to scapegoat free expression. At the same time, we need to remind ourselves that they self-identify as well-meaning champions of equality and an end to discrimination, and believe they are protecting and defending vulnerable minorities and non-mainstream ideas and issues. 

Intellectual Freedom as a Hate Speech Issue for the Public Library

The most contentious challenges to intellectual freedom in Canada have centered around hate speech. Much ink has already been devoted to this issue (among which is my previous CFE blog post commentary). Nowhere is the question of boundaries and balance more important than in distinguishing between what the law defines as illegal hate speech and the many forms of arguably hateful speech that are not illegal. 

Canadian jurisprudence concerning hate speech makes clear that the bar is set very high before expression, however offensive and nasty, crosses the line into illegal hate speech. As then Chief Justice Dickson of the Supreme Court of Canada wrote in Keegstra, a dictionary definition of hatred may be of limited aid because a dictionary seeks to offer a panoply of possible usages, rather than the correct meaning of a word as contemplated by Parliament in its hate speech legislation. He went on, noting the purpose of the legislation, to say: 

[I]n my opinion the term "hatred" connotes emotion of an intense and extreme nature that is clearly associated with vilification and detestation…Hatred is predicated on destruction, and hatred against identifiable groups therefore thrives on insensitivity, bigotry and destruction of both the target group and of the values of our society. Hatred in this sense is a most extreme emotion that belies reason; an emotion that, if exercised against members of an identifiable group, implies that those individuals are to be despised, scorned, denied respect and made subject to ill-treatment on the basis of group affiliation.

Subsequently, in its unanimous Supreme Court of Canada decision in a human rights case [Whatcott], Mr. Justice Rothstein wrote:

In my view, “detestation” and “vilification” aptly describe the harmful effect that the [Human Rights] Code seeks to eliminate. Representations that expose a target group to detestation tend to inspire enmity and extreme ill-will against them, which goes beyond mere disdain or dislike. Representations vilifying a person or group will seek to abuse, denigrate or delegitimize them, to render them lawless, dangerous, unworthy or unacceptable in the eyes of the audience. Expression exposing vulnerable groups to detestation and vilification goes far beyond merely discrediting, humiliating or offending the victims.

The reality for critics who label objectionable ideas in the public library as hate speech is their claims often fail the threshold tests of illegal hate speech as demanded under the Canadian Charter and by constitutional jurisprudence. In a nutshell, the vast majority of so-called hate speech is offensive, often deeply so, but not illegal.

It goes without saying – but bears repeating, anyway – that the courts of law do not sit well with the court of public opinion. The public opinion court often pays little or no attention to basic standards of justice: due process; transparency; accountability; the presumption of innocence until proven guilty; dismissal of the circular reasoning that an allegation is by itself evidence of guilt and a criminal charge is by definition positive proof; the historic rejection of prior restraint as the most extreme form of state censorship because it pre-emptively gags speech; the requirement for evidentiary judgment; the test of reasonable doubt. 

This proclivity to act in disregard of our laws and jurisprudence is seen in how the term “safe” has come to be used in discussions of how to deal with speech some find objectionable. 

The use of the term “physical safety” is reasonably self-evident, but the metaphorical and metaphysical usage of the term “safe space” to mean guaranteed emotional safety and psychological protection is decidedly not clear in meaning or in law. Conflating physical safety with emotional safety is a conceptual category error.

I argued in my previous CFE blog post that nobody and nothing can protect us or shield us from human reality. We live in a world that is inherently unsafe, unpredictable, at times evil, and almost always stressful, because it is a world of events beyond our control. That makes us all vulnerable. Sometimes the world is terrifying – as a visit to a Holocaust Museum reminds us, or as is the current viral pandemic. I am not, however, demeaning or dismissing the reality and power of feelings. Of course, emotions are real. 

It is simply that they are insufficient for public policy development. The idea that the public library should – or even could – guarantee psychological safety from negative emotional states is an unreasonable expectation in an open society that values civil liberties and recognizes that self-realization as well as democracy depend on the human right of free expression. Only physical safety can be expected and protected, as it is, by law.

Furthermore, even if a physical space also feels emotionally safe, it provides absolutely no guarantee social justice has already been or will be achieved, whether in the public library or the community at large. Psychologically safe space is not a necessary condition for achieving social justice and equality, let alone a sufficient one. Conversely, having the power to punish a person for making one feel badly does not ensure they won’t discriminate in material ways; the honey-tongued critic is all the more dangerous for having a hidden silver dagger. In other words, it is unconvincing to allege a constitutional equivalence between psychologically safe space and freedom from discrimination. The bottom line is that negative feelings provoked by a distressing epithet, idea, or argument provide insufficient ground for criminalizing speech or denying free speech rights in library policies. The law is the line.

Indeed, emotional safety in the public library will not solve, or even have a positive effect on, the highly interconnected issues of poverty, education, personal health, class and class warfare, racism and xenophobia, religious bigotry, sexism, misogyny, and environmental justice. Censorship will not protect anyone from what’s going on in the community. Moreover, emotional safety will not contribute to the public library’s social responsibility agenda. Enduring forward movement on social issues cannot be achieved by focusing on just one thing – especially when it’s the wrong thing: Free speech.​

Intellectual Freedom Branding in the Future of the Public Library

Many years ago, the British Columbia Library Association marketed a t-shirt (one of which I still have) that captures the essence of the public library’s commitment to intellectual freedom: There’s Something in My Library to Offend Everybody.

The bottom line is that the price we pay for intellectual freedom, whether in pursuit of social justice or other public policy agendas, is the ugliness of the right to offend one another without fear of prosecution and censorship by the all-powerful state. Throughout human history there will be diversity, conflict, and controversy among ideas and beliefs and values. Giving offence and being offended are the price of diversity, not an impediment to it. Diversity is not just about demographic intersectionalities: Inclusivity and equity can never be achieved by excluding, restricting, or silencing unwelcome diversity. 

Balancing these challenges is inherent in the work of the public library. They require trustees to exercise duty of care and due diligence in risk assessment. But, as the British Columbia Library Trustees Association (BCLTA) “Discussion Starter” points out, risk assessment must not become risk avoidance, and the public policy lens must not be sacrificed to political opportunism. For library trustees to do otherwise, for trustees to acquiesce to condemnatory opinions and censorship pressures, is to disregard the law and jurisprudence and to send a very negative message to library staff committed to defending access to collections and services. It is to abdicate stewardship accountability to the community. Instead, trustees must mitigate risk through due diligence, so as to avoid constitutional vulnerability and a charge of board negligence – for example, through familiarity with statutory provisions and relevant case law, legal advice, review of research, considering peer policies, and weighing criteria for, and evidence of, possible illegal behaviour. 

Some critics of free speech have tried to dismiss the public library as a hypocritical, if not outright failed institution because, they claim, it fails to be value-neutral, impartial, unbiased, and objective. They charge it harbours a secret agenda to perpetuate the status quo and undermine social justice and equality. 

What such criticism overlooks is that the public library has never been neutral about fundamental values and principles. Every institution has a starting point for its existence, a vision and mission, that determines what it is about and what its core issues and values are. In this there is no pretense of neutrality. 

For at least the last 50 or 60 years, public libraries have championed many contemporary core values and social responsibility principles - liberal democracy and an informed citizenry; rule of law; intellectual freedom; universal and equitable access to information and ideas; engagement with community; affirmation of the dignity of library users and resistance to discrimination regardless of personal characteristics; promotion of lifelong learning and enjoyment to enrich and empower people’s lives; transparency and accountability to their communities.

It’s true that public libraries strive to rise above party and partisan politics – but not above core values. There is nothing easy about the public library’s pursuit of core values and principles on behalf of the entire community while also engaging with progressive goals and actively supporting traditionally underserved and marginalized communities. 

That is why I believe there is a need for broader public awareness about the invisible policy links among public library vision and mission, intellectual freedom, and social responsibility. These links are not well understood at all by our publics and the wider body politic. More explicit branding (and brand promotion) is called for, and that could well start with allied professions such as journalists and human rights advocates, who are generally unaware or ignore the public library’s role in supporting and promoting intellectual freedom in Canadian society. (Though kudos are warmly extended to a very small number of media columnists and public commentators for their recent clarity around public library meeting room controversies, as well as to the civil liberties associations, which have uniformly opposed policy restrictions on public library services).

But the first order of business before new branding must be for trustees to review their intellectual freedom policy statements and ensure they are articulated in everyday language and made prominently accessible. Also of first-order business is for the CFLA/FCAB to rejoin the Book and Periodical Council as an organizational member and sponsor of Freedom to Read Week to continue the former Canadian Library Association’s proud support of the Council and the annual celebration of intellectual freedom.

 

Like many others committed to public librarianship, whether trustee, patron, or supporter, I believe there is no freedom at all without freedom of expression. It is the foundation of, and key imperative for, all other universal human rights. If the public library silences voices in the community, it undermines those very principles and values that define its collective and individual “value proposition”: democratic engagement and justice; self-fulfillment; knowledge-seeking and truth-finding. 

The public library mission does not promise to keep people comfortable. It promises to engage them – sometimes challenge them – in their own development as self-governing human beings. To deny public choice is to disenfranchise all members of the community; to negate their agency; to erase their individual right to decide what each one wants to learn about and take away from the information and knowledge to which they’ve been exposed. 

In the long haul, for intellectual and physical well-being, for all of us, it is better to err on the side of a plurality of ideas and a diversity of information and viewpoints – even when it is inevitable that we won’t personally like every one of those ideas and viewpoints. This is what intellectual freedom is supremely about in the public library community: always more choice, greater access, and more voices. 

In many important areas of societal concern and social justice, it is this vision that makes the public library a catalyst for social responsibility, social change, and personal transformation – a reminder of what public library stewardship on high beam must strive to illuminate every day on the roadway ahead. But the public library value proposition will always remain imperfect and forever aspirational. 

In early November 2019, in the midst of the public library meeting room controversies, a close librarian colleague wrote me: “What is most disturbing is so many people seem to have forgotten that we cannot pick and choose when to support free speech, a concept so fundamental to our democratic values and freedoms. As I pinned the poppy on my lapel this morning, I thought about this and all the work there is to do.”


(i) This essay was inspired by an invitation from the British Columbia Library Trustees Association (BCLTA) to speak at its 2020 annual forum. The theme was to be Governance and Intellectual Freedom, following on the Association’s publication of a “Discussion Starter on Intellectual Freedom” in late 2019. 

(ii) In public library messaging with local communities across the nation, however, the term intellectual freedom may very well be unfamiliar to many people, and I would suggest reviewing which term resonates most clearly and intuitively with the majority of them. The media tend to use the term free speech, while the Book and Periodical Council [of Canada] uses the phrase “freedom to read” in its annual week-long celebration of intellectual freedom every February, as well as freedom of expression, free expression, and open debate in its Position Statement on Freedom of Expression and Freedom to Read; PEN Canada uses free expression; Canadian Civil Liberties Association blog posts use the term free speech; and Ryerson University has an institutional hub named Centre for Free Expression that also uses other terms including intellectual freedom and freedom of expression; the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms describes the second-listed fundamental freedom as the “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression”; Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims everyone everywhere has the right to hold and receive opinions, information, and ideas without interference; and the CFLA/FCAB Statement on Intellectual Freedom and Libraries cites both the Canadian Charter and the Universal Declaration terms and uses the additional phrasings of free expression, expressive content, and “constitutionally protected expressions of knowledge, imagination, ideas, and opinion.”