My remarks to the TPL Board

Today I spoke to the TPL board about the decision to give a platform to a transphobe. Spoiler alert: I’m not a supporter of this decision. Here are my remarks.

Good evening. I thank the board for this audience.

My name is Jane Schmidt and I am an academic librarian, a passionate public library advocate, and together with my son, a dedicated user of the Toronto Public Library. We love the library. And so, in that spirit, I am here tonight to express my sadness and disappointment with the way the room booking for an event featuring a notorious transphobe has evolved.

In 2017, when the last room rental controversy took place, I felt differently. In that instance, I understood that the individuals booking that room identified that they were holding a memorial and that the library had no reason to believe that it would be an event that would incite hate speech. Of course, once it was revealed that this was a neo-Nazi gathering, the reaction was swift in the so-called court of public opinion. I was personally uncomfortable with the decision to let it carry on, but I understood the practical aspects of the situation and agreed that within the scope of the policy at the time; the library made the choice that it did based on the information it had about the purpose of the event.

However, the policy revision that followed the event gave me hope. From the December 11, 2017 board report:

The main objectives of the room booking policy are to provide equitable access to services and to maintain a welcoming and supportive environment free from discrimination and harassment. To reflect this, the purpose statement of the policy has been strengthened and the sections on denial of use contain explicit wording forbidding discrimination, contempt or hatred…

I genuinely believed that Section 4.4 of the revised policy would provide TPL with more latitude to deny further bookings that would have the effect of promoting discrimination or hatred.

The event under discussion is called “Gender Identity: What does It Mean for Society, the Law and Women?” and its stated purpose is to have “To have an educational and open discussion on the concept of gender identity and its legislation ramifications on women in Canada.” Indeed, on its face, this purpose seems to fall within the limits of the policy. It is curious that the only named speaker has no legal background and that there are no trans voices in that discussion; the spirit of open debate that the library espouses would, on the surface, appear to be missing here, but I digress. Given that we’ve seen this very similar scenario play out already at the Vancouver Public Library earlier this year, TPL had an opportunity to take in further context and potentially make a different decision. Management insists that they viewed the footage of the event and while they did not agree with the content, they found that it did not amount to hate speech.

I myself watched footage of the event. It was difficult to endure. Far from open debate, this was a platform for transphobes to expound their beliefs, free from the shackles of fact or opposing viewpoints. Meghan Murphy spent the first several minutes of her time smugly ripping the Vancouver Public Library to shreds for how they handled the booking and then went on to offer several definitions of her beliefs, including the absurd assertion that “we” don’t have a definition or understanding of “transgender”. This is not debate. This is not discourse. This is a denial of the existence of gender identity. She makes that abundantly clear. And her audience just laps it up. Eventually, I had to turn it off because I couldn’t stomach the slur-filled comments on the video. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that these words are, at the very least spreading misinformation, and at worst, spreading hate.

And so, here we are. TPL management insists that they have no reason to believe that this event will promote hatred. Vickery Bowles went so far as to assert the only circumstance in which TPL would cancel a booking is if a speaker had been charged with a hate crime.

And so I ask the question – why isn’t that in the revised policy? What was the point of making the revision if there was no clear intent to enforce it?

Trans rights are human rights. Trans women are women. Meghan Murphy and her ilk make no secret that they seek to deny the human rights of trans women, and go so far as to deny their very existence in their insistence that gender identity can be written off as “trans ideology”. Where in this conversation are trans voices?

As a librarian, I understand the significance of intellectual freedom. I understand its place in a democracy. But I stand here today to tell the board and everyone else who is here that there are a good number of librarians and library workers who believe that intellectual freedom must not trump the lives of real people. Ideology must never come before people and that is exactly the message that TPL is sending to the queer and trans community right now.

The discourse of intellectual freedom and the library’s role in protecting it is ripe for debate. I feel sad because I keep thinking of all of the rich conversations we could be having – alongside our community partners – about widening our understanding of intellectual freedom and social responsibility; about an interpretation of intellectual freedom with an anti-oppressive and trauma-informed lense. TPL had an opportunity to be a leader in that conversation when they were faced with this event. Instead, it has turned into a crusade for freedom of speech above all else being propped up by a global network of TERFs and alt-right agitators. Strange bedfellows indeed.

History will judge this moment. So much damage has already been done. I don’t see how TPL comes back from this. I implore the board to set a course correction and begin the work to repair the relationships that this decision has damaged. Please make the right and bold choice to not give platform to transphobia and cancel this event.

Thank you.

6 thoughts on “My remarks to the TPL Board

  1. open debate?

    If the ability to have public discourse and open debate means you need different sides at any event so any speaker can’t explain their position unchallenged, many events would have to change, including the ones where the speakers’ arguments are what you agree with and support.

    The document you link to, where the changes to the policy were discussed, also makes clear that: “The revisions have been set out to balance the interests of a welcoming supportive environment within the provisions of freedom of speech and expression. The revised language in TPL’s Community and Event Space Rental Policy communicates to those wanting to book library spaces, library customers in general, and all stakeholders throughout Toronto that hate activity is not permitted on library premises” and that “violations of the Criminal Code of Canada (including hate propaganda laws) and the Ontario Human Rights Code are specifically referenced as unacceptable.”

    It seems you selectively quoted from it for your position, rather than communicating the full intent of the policy changes; they state that offering a “welcoming supportive environment” is not placed above all else, but is balanced with allowing different and competing positions. They seem to specifically reference what the limitation on those positions are. It would seem consistent with an environment that can offer a wide variety of books and other resources, many of which probably have people who don’t agree with them for various reasons (including anti-oppression) and who wouldn’t want them there.

    You state “The discourse of intellectual freedom and the library’s role in protecting it is ripe for debate. I feel sad because I keep thinking of all of the rich conversations we could be having – alongside our community partners – about widening our understanding of intellectual freedom and social responsibility; about an interpretation of intellectual freedom with an anti-oppressive and trauma-informed lens. TPL had an opportunity to be a leader in that conversation when they were faced with this event. Instead, it has turned into a *crusade* for freedom of speech above all else …” [emphasis added]

    Have you read the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Policy on Competing Human Rights, and do you feel you might agree with the principles there?

    Reply
  2. open debate?

    I think you are misinterpreting the comment about how libraries have resources that people may feel are oppressive, but are kept in the collection because they don’t censor everything anyone feels has problems, instead applying a consistent criteria (like they are doing for the MM situation).

    In your academic studies of librarianship, have you ever come across a situation where some people wanted a book banned because it was oppressive, but the library authorities wouldn’t do so, and you agreed with the decision?

    Or is just a red herring to disregard the challenges to the consistency and accuracy of your argument in favour of deplatforming, and to sidestep “the rich conversations we could be having … about widening our understanding of intellectual freedom and social responsibility” with respect to *balancing* competing rights and interests.

    Reply
  3. incidentalacademic Post author

    Library collections and room bookings are different beasts though, aren’t they? I think it’s a mistake to conflate them. Every library has a different mandate for collections, but yes, I agree that there are generally consistent standards for the consideration of challenged materials. That being said, sometimes those do result in the removal or reclassification of materials for various reasons.

    The fact remains that the presence of a book with offensive content is vastly different than the presence of a speaker known to share hateful opinions being given a platform in space that should rightly be safe for marginalized groups. Particularly when a marginalized group (en masse) is clearly telling the library that this move is harmful and will impact their ability to patronize the library, then I feel it is irresponsible for us to dismiss that information. A choice was made here that I don’t agree with; people are more important that ideology. How are we to reconcile the damage done to the relationship to the LGBTQ+ community?

    Furthermore, before you come back with any sharply worded retorts, I would like to point out that you are an anonymous commenter on my blog. I’m engaging with you because I do believe this is an important debate, but I don’t like not knowing who I’m debating.

    Reply
  4. open debate?

    I appreciate your engaging in this dialogue. I’ll point you to this CBC quote from the librarian, which speaks to two of your points at once (anonymity, and ‘en masse’*)
    ““We’ve heard from trans people and other people who are very supportive of us. But they don’t want their voices to be out there,” said Bowles. “They asked us to keep it in confidence and keep their communication to us in confidence, because they just don’t want reprisal on social media.”

    You stated: “The fact remains that the presence of a book with offensive content is vastly different than the presence of a speaker known to share hateful opinions being given a platform in space that should rightly be safe for marginalized groups.”
    The librarian has also countered that they aren’t hateful opinions, and if people feel they are, they should be challenged legally. But that there is a definition of hate, and the rhetoric is separate from that.
    Are you able to take specific direct quotes from Murphy, and apply a defining criteria to identify what is hate? Or are you simply repeating what others say?

    “… a space that should rightly be safe for marginalized groups.”
    What does that mean? If there was a book by Meghan Murphy in the library, would you still think it is a safe space? Contrasted with Murphy visiting once, to give a talk or discussion in a room only with people who chose to come and listen to what she had to say? Or if Murphy wasn’t giving a talk, but chose to visit and have a conversation informally that might be overhead by others?

    There are issues that seem to go deeper than the assertions being made about them in much of the discourse on this issue.

    Reply

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