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COMMENTARY: We should expect public libraries to be on the side of freedom of expression

Trans writer and activist Gwen Benaway speaks to the crowd gathered outside a Toronto Library before writer Meghan Murphy spoke at an event on Tuesday, October 29, 2019.
Trans writer and activist Gwen Benaway speaks to the crowd gathered outside a Toronto Library before writer Meghan Murphy spoke at an event on Tuesday, October 29, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Earlier this year, Vickery Bowles, city librarian at the Toronto Public Library, took part in an event celebrating 35 years of “Freedom to Read Week.” For those not familiar, Freedom to Read Week “encourages Canadians to think about and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom, which is guaranteed them under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

As best I can tell, there was no controversy and there were no protests around this event.

I don’t think most people would draw a distinction between the written and spoken word when it comes to freedom of expression, but the over-the-top reaction to Meghan Murphy’s speech at the Toronto Public Library this past week suggests that some people do.

READ MORE: ‘Canadians aren’t seeing the whole picture’: The Meghan Murphy event and trans rights

University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson has been accused of having unenlightened views on transgender rights, much in the same way that Meghan Murphy has. Peterson’s books, though, are available at the Toronto Public Library. Are they giving him a forum? Should those books be pulled?

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For the most part, no one seems to notice or care that those books are there. If you don’t wish to read the thoughts of Jordan Peterson, then don’t take out his book.

Meghan Murphy has not yet written a book, but the same principle still applies: if you don’t wish to hear her thoughts, then don’t attend her event. Fortunately, the Toronto Public Library understands this principle. It is disturbing and distressing that so many others do not.

Tuesday night, several hundred protesters gathered outside the library where Murphy was speaking. Certainly those protesting were exercising their own freedom of expression rights, but the protests were the culmination of an intense campaign to have the Toronto Public Library cancel Murphy’s speech altogether.

Drag performers cut ties with Toronto Public Library after event features controversial speaker
Drag performers cut ties with Toronto Public Library after event features controversial speaker

Even though the speech itself has come and gone, that campaign continues. Toronto city councilors have voted in support of a review of policies concerning the use of community spaces — in direct response to the Murphy controversy and the policy the library relied on in allowing the event to go ahead.

That policy, though, was the result of extensive consultation — including consultation with legal experts on the library’s Charter obligations — following a previous controversy about the rental of space at the library.

Interestingly, no one has pointed to anything Meghan Murphy actually said in that speech to justify the calls to cancel the event or efforts now to prevent her from holding such an event in the future. That, to me, strongly suggests that the library got it right and that the policy should be left alone. If anything, other libraries should be reviewing their own policies to ensure that their policies are reflective of their Charter obligations and principle of free expression.

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READ MORE: Toronto Public Library criticized over refusal to cancel event by controversial speaker

There isn’t sufficient space here to properly explain all of Murphy’s views. The more she is demonized, however, the more likely it is that people are going to be curious about what her views are. In many ways, her opponents are the ones giving her a platform.

There may be all sorts of sound and legitimate rebuttals to some or all of her points, but her views are not so beyond the pale that they warrant the sort of reaction we’ve seen. What it means to be a female, or how best to ensure females are protected, especially when it comes to men, are certainly issues we can discuss. If gender identity becomes a factor, then we should be able to talk about that, too.

Toronto library criticized over refusal to cancel event by controversial speaker
Toronto library criticized over refusal to cancel event by controversial speaker

Regardless, it should be a moot point as far as the Toronto Public Library is concerned. They’re certainly not endorsing Murphy’s views in any way. This is about a much bigger principle — one that we should want libraries to understand and embrace. Certainly the LGBTQ2 community should understand the importance of free expression.

There has been some support for the library’s position, fortunately. PEN Canada and Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression have lent their support to the Toronto Public Library’s position.

Free expression certainly applies to speaking out in favour of transgender rights and it certainly applies to rebutting or criticizing people like Meghan Murphy. But it also applies to Murphy herself.

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On this, the Toronto Public Library did the right thing in allowing the event to proceed.

Rob Breakenridge is host of “Afternoons with Rob Breakenridge” on Global News Radio 770 Calgary and a commentator for Global News.