Meeting Room Policy Protests in Toronto, Vancouver

On October 29, writer Meghan Murphy spoke at a rented theater space in Canada’s Toronto Public Library (TPL) Palmerston branch. The discussion—“Gender Identity: What Does It Mean for Society, the Law and Women?"—was booked by an outside group, Radical Feminists Unite, and was not part of library programming. The appearance sparked protests against the library’s decision to rent the space to Murphy, particularly from the transgender and broader LGBTQ communities, as well as a barrage of criticism on social media.

protesters with signs outside Toronto Public Library branch
Protesters outside Palmerston branch of Toronto Public Library
Photo by Patty Winsa

On October 29, writer Meghan Murphy spoke at a rented theater space in Canada’s Toronto Public Library (TPL) Palmerston branch. The discussion—“Gender Identity: What Does It Mean for Society, the Law and Women?"—was booked by an outside group, Radical Feminists Unite, and was not part of library programming. The appearance sparked protests against the library’s decision to rent the space to Murphy, particularly from the transgender and broader LGBTQ communities, as well as a barrage of criticism on social media.

Murphy is a self-described radical feminist, and founder of online publication Feminist Current. Murphy has questioned whether people can change their gender, and has written that “allowing men to identify as women” endangers women and threatens women’s rights. Because of such statements, she has been widely condemned by transgender and LGBTQ advocates, and was suspended from Twitter in 2018 for “violating rules against hateful conduct” in four tweets referencing a trans person. Murphy has publicly opposed Bill C-16, an act amending the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code that makes it illegal to discriminate based on gender identity and expression, which was enacted in Canadian Parliament in 2017.

In the weeks following Murphy’s booking, individuals and organizations spoke out against the library’s decision to allow it, including the Toronto Public Library Workers Union Local 4948 (which endorsed the protest as well), the Trans Women’s Association, Canadian Parents of Trans and Gender Diverse Kids, and Toronto Mayor John Tory, who said in a statement that he was “disappointed in the Toronto Public Library's decision to allow this talk to go ahead on its property.”

Toronto City Librarian Vickery Bowles responded to the many objections in a statement from the library, noting that the event was a third-party room rental, and did not violate meeting room policies.

TPL policy gives the library the right to deny or cancel any third party event that “is likely to promote discrimination, contempt or hatred for any group or person on the basis of race, ethnic origin, place of origin, citizenship, colour, ancestry, language, creed (religion), age, sex, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, disability, political affiliation, membership in a union or staff association, receipt of public assistance, level of literacy or any other similar factor.”

The library reviews the stated purpose of third party rental requests to determine if they are in compliance with policy. Murphy’s stated intent was “To have an educational and open discussion on the concept of gender identity and its legislation ramifications on women in Canada.” She has never been charged or convicted of hate speech offenses as defined in the Criminal Code of Canada, according to TPL.

“We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom, but at the same time are deeply committed to equity and diversity,” Bowles wrote. “Allowing a room booking does not imply we endorse or support the views expressed. We are strong supporters of the LGBTQ2S+ community within TPL and the communities we serve.” She pointed readers to an article by Alvin M. Schrader, “Can Public Libraries Maintain Their Commitment to Intellectual Freedom in the Face of Outrage Over Unpopular Speakers?” published by Ryerson University’s Centre for Free Expression.

During Murphy’s appearance several hundred protesters rallied outside the library. Inside, Murphy spoke to about 100 attendees. There were no arrests or incidents of violence.

 

A FREE SPEECH ISSUE

An online petition urging the library to cancel Murphy’s appearance circulated in October, eventually gathering more than 9,000 signatures. Several authors, including petition originators Alicia Elliott, Catherine Hernandez, and Carrianne Leung, said that they would subsequently boycott TPL events.

“There is a difference between denying free speech and what is known as de-platforming, which is when you refuse to allow hate speech to be disseminated in your facility,” the petition stated. “This has been an effective tactic to stop those who capitalize on spreading hate speech, such as Meghan Murphy.”

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA), in an October 21 letter to the TPL Board of Directors, wrote in support of the meeting space rental. The library, the letter stated, “should not be put in the position of assessing which views are acceptable and which are not. If the content to be communicated at an event does not tread into the territory of illegal hate speech, a speaker should be allowed to use the space in the same fashion as anyone else. Adopting a different approach would countenance the de-platforming of speakers because we don’t like, or disagree with, what they have to say.”

It went on to point out that Canada’s Supreme Court has explicitly stated that hate speech laws do not “prohibit expression which debates the merits of reducing the rights of vulnerable groups in society” (Whatcott v. Saskatchewan, 2013 WCC 11, para. 51). CCLA has “fought fiercely for the rights of trans and nonbinary people, and will continue to do so,” it stated, but its views on Murphy’s position cannot dictate whether she is allowed to speak at a public venue—nor can the library’s staff, board, or community.

Other supporters of TPL’s position included the Canadian Urban Library Council, the U.S. Urban Libraries Council, the Centre for Free Expression, and the Canadian Federation of Library Associations.

In another letter, however, Brendan Haley, president of the Toronto Public Library Workers Union, Local 4948, pointed out that “while Murphy may not have been officially charged with hate speech under Canadian law, her views do, in fact, target highly vulnerable and marginalized communities not only in our workplace, but along library users in Toronto and beyond.”

"It's a challenging discussion when it comes to freedom of speech and intellectual freedom, and which groups get certain platforms in public space,” Brandon Haynes, president-elect of Local 4948 of the Toronto Public Library Workers Union, told LJ. “But we felt that we needed to take a stance that was representing the community—particularly members of the community that are marginalized, and many of them who have not felt necessarily included in the library in past decades. Our members and library workers actually did a lot of work to build bridges and make the library more inclusive and more welcoming for everybody. The position that we have is that allowing this booking by Meghan Murphy, even though it was a third party room rental, was almost disrespectful to the members of the community that we've been trying to build relationships with in the past."

Because Murphy had sparked similar protests at the Vancouver Public Library (VPL), BC, earlier this year, TPL leadership consulted with the City of Toronto’s lawyer before booking her. “We knew exactly what was going to happen because we saw it play out in Vancouver,” Bowles told LJ.

However, Melissa Hudson, an advocate for the Trans Women’s Association, suggested that TPL was acting on advice based on an “imprecise question to legal counsel.” Specifically, she wrote, “In Ontario the Ontario Human Rights Code [OHRC] is quite clear regarding accommodation, which is different than criminal hate speech…. So while your legal council may be correct that [it] is likely no criminality will occur at the event, a violation of OHRC and/or specific involved organization policy is likely to occur, not limited to what the speaker, organizer, or participants promote.”

 

CONTROVERSY IN VANCOUVER

When Murphy spoke at VPL’s Main Branch in January, the library received similar criticism. The LGBTQ community pushed back against her talk, titled “Gender Identity Ideology and Women’s Rights,” and protested outside the library as she spoke.

The Vancouver-based Coalition Against Trans Antagonism (CATA) said in a statement that the event “promotes fear, discrimination, and hatred toward trans people and sex workers.” In a letter submitted at the April 24 VPL board meeting, CATA called on the library to release a public apology, revisit its meeting room rental policies, commit to annual trans and sex worker sensitivity training for all staff and board members, cohost trans and sex worker community dialogues with CATA, and provide free rental space for trans and sex worker groups and individuals as a form of reparations. In July, VPL’s invitation to participate in the Vancouver Pride Parade was rescinded. The Vancouver Pride Society also disinvited the University of British Columbia from the event after it hosted a speech by speaker Jenn Smith, a “transgender-identified male” who speaks out on the dangers of “transgender ideology.”

VPL, in a statement, acknowledged community concerns but responded that the “Vancouver Pride Society is asking the Library to go beyond the law and rely on their interpretation of what is legally permitted speech in Canada. The limits on freedom of expression must be decided by the legal system, not the Library.”

In September, VPL issued a revised meeting room policy that explicitly stated it would not block speakers, even those deemed “offensive or harmful,” who did not violate the Criminal code of Canada or BC Human rights Code. Violation of the BC Human Rights Code includes “The publication, issuing or display of any material that indicates discrimination or an intention to discriminate against a person or group, or is likely to expose a person or group to hatred or contempt, because of their race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, religion, marital status, family status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or age.” The library will also pre-screen meeting room applicants to ensure compliance with these policies.

TPL had revised its meeting room policy in 2017 at the request of the mayor and library board, after a group that rented the space for a memorial service that summer turned out to be identified with the Neo-Nazi movement. Working with an external law firm, said Bowles, “We developed a policy in the context of adhering to the fundamental freedoms protected in our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which is our constitution." The library also took into account American Library Association (ALA) meeting room policy guidelines.

The policy, which was also peer-reviewed by a constitutional lawyer from Toronto-based Osgoode Hall Law School, bases rental decisions on the purpose of the meeting itself, rather than individuals or groups or their affiliations.

 

THE NEED FOR CIVIC DISCOURSE

Of the more than 500 emails, voice mails, and letters received by the library about Murphy’s appearance, said Bowles, “My estimate is that over 90 percent were supportive of the decision." Local and national newspapers wrote opinion pieces in favor of TPL’s action. Responses on social media, however, were overwhelmingly negative, as were in-person comments at the October 22 board meeting.

Over the past two years, the library has also been working to address what Bowles sees as a growing lack of civil discourse through a system-wide series of events, book discussions, workshops and podcasts called “On Civil Society.” The programming, she said, “talks about how we've forgotten how to disagree with one another. It's not about insults or personal attacks or name calling, it's about being able to—in a public space—disagree, where it's accepted and even encouraged."

Still, a speaker such as Murphy provokes a deeply heartfelt response as well as an ideological one. “Is the TPL aware of how its handling of these events has contributed to a transphobic climate and that this has serious impacts?” read a letter from the organization Canadian Parents of Trans and Gender Diverse Kids. “As parents, we witness the toll that direct and indirect discrimination, harassment, and violence has on children.”

Bowles acknowledges their concerns, but stands by the TPL’s commitment to its core values. “If you're going to make room bookings available to the public then you have to do it on the same basis as you develop your collections, or deliver your programs. Free speech and equitable access have to be foundational," she told LJ.

"Free speech is important, but I don't think free speech is the only issue that should have been considered by the library administrators,” countered Haynes. “They should have looked at what it means if you're offering a library as a safe, welcoming space and at the same time you're allowing these individuals to come into the library and pretty much call into question somebody's entire existence in the world.”

Haynes added, “We're finding the rise of a lot of hate speech, particularly in Ontario and Canada. I think that the library needed to be a little bit stronger in terms of having a leadership voice and standing up for the communities that they represent."

Pilar Martinez, chief executive officer of the Edmonton Public Library (EPL), Alta., would like to see more opportunity to increase public awareness about the library’s mandate and its grounding in Canada’s constitution. “There's a lot of misinformation out there and misunderstanding around the public library's mandate and our obligations under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” Martinez told LJ. “There needs to be more awareness raised. I think we need to have speakers and discussions on these topics, and hopefully it's a civil discourse, where there are opportunities to express different viewpoints. The idea is not to censor or suppress voices, but to increase that opportunity to have those conversations."

EPL, too, is in the process of reviewing its meeting room policy in light of the Murphy controversies, and plans to bring in legal counsel specializing with experience in constitutional law.

"I don't know that we could promise that library spaces will not have people who say offensive things,” said Martinez. “We can't guarantee that. That's the beauty of the public library—the diversity of our users, the diversity of their opinions and beliefs." She noted that in the half dozen years EPL has been hosting its Forward Thinking speaker series, there has never been a speaker who didn’t receive at least one complaint—and usually more. “There's always somebody who has a different perspective, and there's always a different side to the story,” said Martinez. “If you're not offended by one particular idea, you may be by the next one."

A positive side to the Murphy controversy, noted Bowles, is that it has provoked needed conversations. “There's been a really important discussion about the transgender community, and the discrimination and violence and difficulties they face in their day- to-day lives, that’s leading to greater understanding and—I think, ultimately—tolerance.”

What she can promise patrons, Bowles said, is that the library will provide them with a safe space. “Through our rules of conduct we will make sure that you are not harassed or discriminated against,” she said. “A welcoming environment means that you will find diversity at the library in terms of people and ideas and opinions, and some of what you may find at the library you may find offensive. But we will welcome everyone without judgment and make sure that you are not harassed or discriminated against."

Paraphrasing former Supreme Court of Canada judge Beverley McLachlin, who presided over Whatcott v. Saskatchewan, Martinez said, “Freedom of expression not only protects good and popular expression, but also unpopular and even offensive expression. That right is based on the conviction that this is the best route to the truth, that having those divergent opinions and beliefs is what enables the truth to be spoken. If we don't like an idea or a concept, we are free to either argue against it or we can just walk away, but suppressing it or censoring it is not the answer."

But regaining that trust will take time, Haynes said. LGBTQ community members “are already marginalized in other contexts in society, and I think that the library should have set a better example in terms of whose interest they do represent."

And it isn’t only community members whose needs should be considered, he added. “There needs to be more engagement with the front line workers who deliver these programs and services or book the rooms.” TPL’s Pride Alliance Committee, made up of both management and library workers, has met with Bowles and discussed how to proceed going forward.

“There needs to be more acknowledgment of relationships and the complexities that exist in the use of public space in general,” Haynes noted. “There's a lot of different levels of equity and equality that exist in the library world.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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