Writers protest free speech at Toronto Library

Free speech should never be conditional. Disagreement is not violence. Why do we keep having to say this to writers, academics, and intellectuals?
Free speech should never be conditional. Disagreement is not violence. Why do we keep having to say this to writers, academics, and intellectuals?

It’s truly amazing how many libraries in Canada just can’t get with the idea that they need to police and restrict speech. The Vancouver Public Library came under attack for hosting an event with notorious gender critical feminist Meghan Murphy, and now the Toronto Public Library is being set upon by a petition of writers who, what else, don’t want Murphy to speak. Yet Murphy’s talk, “Gender Identity: What Does It Mean for Society, the Law and Women?” hosted by Radical Feminists Unite, is sold out.

Murphy’s biggest crime is believing that sex is not mutable, that biological sex trumps gender identity. For this she has dealt with aggressive protests, was banned on Twitter, and has been deplatformed numerous times. This time, it’s the brave writers of Canada, namely Alicia Elliot, Catherine Hernandez, and Carrianne Leung who feel the “need to share [their] disappointment” that the Library is hosting this event. They have demanded that Meghan Murphy be deplatformed. Additionally, they have expressed their surety that deplatforming is not a violation of free speech.

“There is a difference between denying free speech—and what is known as deplatforming, which is when you refuse to allow hate speech to be disseminated in your facility.” The petition circulating on Change.org goes on to state that “if this event moves forward, the signed writers and publishing professionals will no longer, in clear conscience, participate in TPL events.” They vow also to “stage peaceful demonstrations both online and in front of the Palmerston branch on the night of the event.”

The point of contention between the cabal of writers and Murphy is the 2017 passing of bill C-16, which amended the Candian Human Rights Act. This amendment added “gender identity or expression” to those characteristics that are protected from discrimination. Murphy aptly notes that this change was made in haste, without adequate consideration for the impact it would have on the rights of women and girls. The petitioners believe that raising concerns or having an open debate about the rights of women and girls is hate speech. This is exactly the kind of madness that was predicted by Jordan Peterson when he originally made headlines by opposing the bill.

But they also go further and speak about how those who advocate for further consideration of the trans-inclusive amendments are weaponizing free speech.

“Those who want to disseminate hate speech today know that they can misrepresent, then weaponize the phrase ‘freedom of speech’ in order to get what they want: an audience, and space to speak to and then mobilize that audience against marginalized communities. While everyone has freedom of speech, we want to once again point to the limits of those freedoms when certain acts and speech infringe on the freedom of others, particularly those in marginalized communities. We also want to point out that hate groups do not have a right to use publicly funded facilities to meet and organize.”

This is a completely absurd supposition, made all the more inane and caustic because it is coming from a group of writers: people for whom free speech should be the most cherished right. Writers, of all people, should be advocating for the inalienable right of everyone to speak, to make use of public gathering space, and to not be denied that right simply because a couple of thousand people disagree with them. Disagreement is not violence. Why do we keep having to say this to writers, academics, and intellectuals? They really should have the entirety of history at their fingertips to tell them just how dangerous, illiberal, and totalitarian this kind of petitioning is.

Go ahead: stand outside the library, hold up some placards, that’s completely within your rights. But trying to tell a library to deny basic rights that you want to make use of yourself is anathema to, well, being a writer. Free speech should never be conditional.

Protesting the library by refusing to attend or take part in literary events, and by protesting speakers with whom they disagree, are both reasonable ways to express displeasure. But trying to pressure a library into banning speech is not an act of bravery, but one of cowardice.

Thankfully, the Toronto Library will not bend to the will of the totalitarian writers. They released a statement: “As a public library and public institution, we have an obligation to protect free speech. When Toronto Public Library (TPL) makes meeting rooms available to the public we serve, we need to make them available to all on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use. As a public institution, our primary obligation is to uphold the fundamental freedoms of freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression as enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

It’s reassuring to see that in a society where writers have turned into a censorious mob, at least the public institutions that shelve their books are still committed to the fundamental right of free speech.