Public Libraries and Freedom of Expression

By | October 28, 2019 at 11:04 am | No comments | News

As a writers’ organization that supports freedom of expression in all its forms, PEN Canada considers the Toronto Public Library an important ally. Its rental policy recognizes the necessity of barring the use of Library premises from “any individual or group … for a purpose that is likely to promote, or would have the effect of promoting discrimination, contempt or hatred for” a very wide range of groups, including those marginalized “on the basis of sex, gender identity, gender expression … (or) sexual orientation.”

PEN Canada supports the Toronto Public Library’s decision to honour its commitment to a booking for a controversial third-party event scheduled at its Palmerston branch on October 29. Ms Meghan Murphy’s opinions do not meet a legal threshold for exclusion under the library’s rental policy, though they are clearly at odds with the inclusive spirit which should inform its enforcement. Recognizing that some views held by Ms Murphy are repugnant to many, PEN nevertheless believes, as a matter of principle, that the Library cannot be forced to adjudicate which opinions – short of those which violate the Criminal Code – can be aired by a third party on its premises.

Freedom of expression takes many forms including the freedom to choose one’s self-presentation and express one’s identity. It is threatened by conditions of social exclusion, marginalization, and violence, whether physical or psychological. Trans people in Canada are routinely subjected to violence; adding social exclusion further limits the scope within which they and other marginalized sexual and gender identities and expressions can freely express themselves. Advocating for trans people to be barred from gendered public spaces although it contravenes no laws, clearly fosters discrimination against them.

PEN does not support the deplatforming of controversial speakers but it does recognize the felt need for better oversight of the library’s comprehensive rental policy, with its laudable commitment to preserving the freedom of expression that flows from “a welcoming and supportive environment free from discrimination and harassment.”

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