Public libraries have historically championed free speech.
They do so based on the belief that societies are better served by allowing contentious ideas to be aired and challenged, rather than suppressing them.
It’s a position that is not without controversy, and an upcoming event in Vancouver provides an example.
Last Monday (January 27), the Vancouver Public Library announced that it has approved a request to rent space at its central branch downtown.
The event features Meghan Murphy, a feminist commentator who has been at odds with the transgender community.
In 2019, the library allowed Murphy to hold an event, and for this, the VPL was prohibited by the Vancouver Pride Society from joining that year’s pride parade.
In the fall of the same year, the library upheld its commitment to intellectual freedom and freedom of expression in its updated policy for booking rental spaces.
Following the VPL’s decision to allow a new event by Murphy, the Georgia Straight contacted Murphy and Morgane Oger, a prominent transgender advocate.
According to Murphy, the library was simply following its mandate.
“There's nothing about our events that are controversial or hateful,” Murphy said in a phone interview. “So there's no reason for the library to reject our request.”
Oger was “disappointed”.
“I had hoped for better and more insight from the Vancouver Public Library,” Oger said in a separate phone interview.
According to Oger, the decision of the library was “not in keeping with the expectations of the Canadian Charter of Rights”.
“The right to free expression has to be balanced against the right to be free of discrimination, and to live free of discrimination,” Oger said. “And that's an interpretation of the charter that I adhere to.”
For Murphy, it’s a question about a “foundational principle” involving the role of libraries as platforms for free expression.
“This is a purpose of libraries: to support free expression, to support free speech, and to oppose censorship,” Murphy said.
According to Murphy, libraries are “places that support people's right to speak, and debate, and discuss issues, controversial or not”.
Oger was asked what the transgender community finds objectionable about Murphy’s views.
Oger argued that Murphy “ascribes to the view that transgender women are men because they are transgender”.
“That is not compatible with the fact, for example, that many transgender women are categorized as women and female under Canadian law,” Oger said.
On October 29, 2019, Murphy spoke at a Toronto Public Library event titled ‘Gender Identity: What Does It Mean for Society, the Law, and Women?’.
In a transcript that Murphy posted online, she stated that she never said that transwomen are not real women.
“I have said that trans-identified males are male. Because they are. This is not a judgement or an insult, it is simply a material reality — a biological reality. If you are born male, you remain male for life,” Murphy said.
In the phone interview, Oger claimed that the library is violating Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
This section of the charter refers to equality rights.
Section 15 reads: “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”
Oger suggested that the issue may get to the courts.
“I'm ready to vigorously defend that in court,” Oger said, referring to the matter regarding Section 15 of the charter and how the library is presumably in breach.
For Murphy, the library’s approval of rental space for her March 21 event titled ‘‘Women’s places and spaces: sports, prisons, and shelters’ came as no surprise.
According to Murphy, the “booking is really no different than anyone else's”.
“We support everyone's right to be free of discrimination, and we support everyone's human rights and certainly nothing that is said or promoted or discussed at these events opposes anyone rights or supports discrimination or hatred,” Murphy said.
In a January 27, 2020 statement, chief librarian Christina de Castell noted that many called on the library board to reject the rental request.
But according to de Castell, the VPL is acting “in accordance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which includes the right to freedom of expression subject only to limits recognized at law”.
“VPL recognizes the importance of freedom of expression as a core principle of democracy, and identifies it as an organizational value,” de Castell stated. “We believe that dialogue, not censorship, will ultimately lead to greater understanding and inclusion.”
“Historically, libraries’ participation in defending freedom of expression has advanced the position of marginalized groups, including LGBTQ2+ communities,” de Castell also said.