Libraries are unique places. In practice, many are glorified community centres that happen to have books. I once had the misfortune of once walking in on a homeless man in the bathroom of a downtown library enjoying his own company far too much.
But in their purest form, libraries are gateways to knowledge. Unlike universities, which are by design elitist, libraries are about making information available to the masses.
The London Public Library (in London, Ontario, I should say for the benefit of our international readers) claims to take this role seriously.
“The Library supports, defends and promotes intellectual freedom and actively advocates in defense of the rights of library users to read, seek information, and express their views,” the LPL policy on intellectual freedom says.
It proclaims intellectual freedom to be a “core value of public libraries.”
And yet, that same library has banned British author and columnist Joanna Williams from speaking on its premises tomorrow.
Williams was invited by the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, a group (of which I’m a member) which champions the freedom to debate and discuss within the academy and beyond.
SAFS has rented space from the library in the past without issue, but this year was asked to jump through hoops.
Initially, the library asked SAFS for a lecture outline and PowerPoint slides as it reviewed whether Williams should be allowed in its theater. Eventually, library brass decided her planned talk on sex, gender, and the limits of free speech entailed a “risk of likelihood of physical danger,” and was likely to “impede the abilities of others to enjoy” library services.
More pointedly, the library said the “content (of Williams’ speech) is or is likely to be in violation of library policy.”
As SAFS president Mark Mercer put it to me, it’s clear the library made a values judgement about Williams’ opinions more than anything else. I wouldn’t be surprised if the library decided to ban her and then went fishing for policies to justify the decision after the fact.
This was not a haphazard decision made by a low-level room booker, but something that went right up to the CEO and the library board.
A statement sent by library CEO Michael Ciccone to mainstream media outlets this morning is illuminating:
“We are guided in this work by our primary values of exceptional customer service and anti-racism and anti-oppression, which we hold alongside the values of strong relationships, digital empowerment, accountability & responsibility and supporting foundational literacies. We will continue to be guided by these values in all of the work that we do.”
By its own admission, the London Public Library views “anti-racism” and “anti-oppression” as more important than accountability and supporting literacy.
What those things mean is anyone’s guess, but CBC gave considerable space to a Black Lives Matter activist who defended the library’s ban of SAFS and Williams on the grounds that it’s “essential to keep libraries as a safe and free space for communities to engage.”
Fostering a “free space” by banning those with heterodox views is a curious concept, though sadly not a novel one.
The irony of banning a speech on free speech isn’t lost on sensible people, but the censors don’t particularly care. “Free speech” is no longer the trump card it once was.
As CBC puts it, paraphrasing “social justice advocate” Syrus Marcus Ware:
“Organizations such as SAFS often use the free speech mantra to push harmful and violent language against diverse communities, said Ware.”
When even free speech policies must be applied using an “anti-oppression” lens, activist censors get the ultimate veto over discourse.
Libraries are witting belligerents in the culture wars and only pay lip service to intellectual freedom, a concept that was once their guiding light.
This is a free newsletter, but we’re able to keep publishing it thanks to the generous support of our paid subscribers. If you want to keep it coming, please consider signing up for $6/month or $60/year using the “Subscribe now” button above.