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Blog January 11, 2018

“No-Platforming” should have No Place in a Public Library

The Toronto Public Library (TPL) Board kicked-off 2018 by bringing in a new policy on community and event space rental.  While the new policy is meant to address discrimination and promote inclusion, it is infinitely more likely to quash debates on controversial topics, exclude minority voices and in doing so, distort the mission of the library to promote the free exchange of ideas. 

It appears that this policy shift was catalyzed by the controversy in the summer of 2017 over TPL community space being rented for the memorial for Barbara Kulaszka, a lawyer whose clients included white supremacists and those espousing far right causes.  According to the report submitted by the City Librarian about the event and the policy, about 20 people attended the memorial service without incident.  Nevertheless, the fact of the event having taken place spawned “approximately 1,600 email and voicemail messages” of complaint and the Mayor of Toronto issued an official statement in which he called for the rental policy to be reviewed “in the wake of this event”. 

The City Librarian’s report states that TPL sought legal advice from the City of Toronto on this matter when the controversy first erupted.  The advice was that there were no grounds, in law or policy, for denying a room to the organizers of the memorial service and that “values enshrined in the Charter and in particular, the principles of freedom of expression, are core to the Library’s mission and values.” 

But the severity of the bad publicity led the library to seek a second, external, legal opinion and undertake a consultation to review the policy. The result was a decision by the TPL Board that it was defensible (in law and policy) to restrict access to room booking in some circumstances. 

The changes to the policy, in a nutshell:

  1. Add language about the Library’s objectives of “providing equitable access to services and maintaining a welcoming supportive environment free from discrimination and harassment”;
  2. Set out that the Library can deny or cancel a room booking on the basis of reasonable belief that “the purpose of the booking is likely to promote, or would have the effect of promoting, discrimination, contempt or hatred of any group, hatred for any 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”; and, 
  3. Specifically reference violations of the Criminal Code (including the hate propaganda laws) and the Ontario Human Rights Code as unacceptable. 

It’s a given that these changes are well intended.  But just because they are well motivated doesn’t make them good policy.

In fact, for a quick assessment on just how bad a policy this is, specifically for a library, apply this policy on the (presumed in advance) expressive content of those booking rooms to the expressive content of books, in which case TPL would reserve the right to restrict access to books likely to have the effect of promoting discrimination, contempt or hatred on the basis of… [see list above].  Pretty obviously this would be a disastrous policy for a library which, after all, has a unique and critical role in a free and democratic society to provide universal access to a broad range of information and ideas. 

The critical necessity of maintaining impartiality about the content of ideas means that a library must have collections that include books and materials that may offend or disgust people.  Some of the materials on offer may indeed promote discriminatory ideas.  But the mission of the library is not to sort “good” ideas from “bad” ideas. A sorting function of that kind is simply antithetical to the mission and purpose of the library. 

Similarly, a policy of sorting out which members of the public have “good” ideas from those that are “bad” in order to apply the room rental policy also runs counter to the core values of the library. Further, it places the library in an entirely untenable position likely to aggravate rather than abate public complaints. 

Under the former, appropriately content-neutral room booking policy, responses to people complaining about events in rented rooms would be consistent with the response to people complaining that certain books shouldn’t be on the library shelves(not at all rare).  The response to both these types of complaints should be the same:  the library doesn’t endorse ideas, it gives access to a broad range of ideas.  However, under the new room booking policy, the responses are not the same.  The library, detouring from its mandate, is now consorting with an element of endorsement in its approach to community access to public space.    

So, what then will this look like?  The fair assumption is that it will attract many of the same dynamics that we see in the “no-platforming” that is becoming notorious on some North American campuses.  There is no reason to believe that the contests between groups that are polarized on contentious issues will not be brought home to the library as groups seek to use and enforce the prior restraint of rental denial or cancellation to silence their opponents. 

Will gender-critical feminist speakers be denied access to room rentals on the grounds that their views could promote contempt for transgendered persons?  Would a group supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement with respect to Israel be permitted to use a space, or will staff of TPL think that the discussion will be necessarily discriminatory?  Will politically conservative groups be permitted to hold public forums on immigration policy or will that be deemed impermissible as likely to promote discrimination against racialized communities? 

It’s clear that the promoters of the new room booking policy are attempting to promote access by denying access.  This is unfortunately a misguided endeavor, more apt to distort the mandate of the library than to promote it. 

The Toronto Library Board should reconsider their reconsideration.