Image Credit: Geoffrey Thierry Flickr Creative Commons

Libraries and Freedom of Speech

Jane Cowell
4 min readNov 24, 2019


In October the Toronto Library was widely condemned by LGBQTI communities when they allowed the anti-trans feminist Meghan Murphy, to give a talk to a sell out crowd. The library as venue is a service that many public libraries offer for a fee and it brings much needed revenue to the service. According to the Canadian media, in this case the library venue was rented to a third-party group called Radical Feminists Unite.

Quoted in the BBC News Toronto Public Library Manager Vickery Bowles refused to cancel the booking, saying: “We are a democratic institution and we are standing up for free speech,” adding that Ms Murphy has never been charged with hate speech. Meghan Murphy had also organised a talk at the Vancouver Public Library to another storm of protest with the same response from the Library Service — that we as libraries stand up for free speech. Hate speech is the line in the sand if the media is correct in their reporting and Meghan Murphy’s opinions had not reached that level.

There has been quite a bit of commentary in the library sector regarding our social justice agenda and how this does not align with the librarian as warrior for free speech image and non censorship stance. This stance is long standing from the time when publishing, media coverage and limited platforms for alternative voices was available. My question is in the day of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, when anyone can reach vast audiences with false facts, propaganda, and discriminatory views, as well as spewing hate everywhere, is it time that Libraries stood up for truth, tolerance and democracy instead of free speech. Because the current fake news, the spreading of hate, conspiracies and lies that are part of today’s internet is the actual threat to democracy, not freedom of speech.

Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has waded into the debate on freedom of speech regarding social media platforms stating that freedom of speech is not the same as freedom of reach and while I am not equating the library’s reach with that of Facebook I am saying that any presentation at a library gives a legitimacy and bigger platform to the presenter just by being in the library. We, in the library world need to be very aware of this responsibility. Saying that these are just hirers of meeting rooms and are not part of library programming is disingenuous at best as communities just see that the event is being held at a library — with all the legitmacy that library owned/developed events attract. The hirers of meeting rooms also attract some of the legitmacy and trust that is associated with the library to their message and event. When there are so many other platforms for fake news, bigotry and vile conspiracies libraries should stand up for objective truth and facts. Not provide a further legitimised amplified platform for lies and bigots — even when they do not reach the threshold of hate speech.

Jessamyn West Keynote Social Justice is a Library Issue

Cohen ended his speech with a call to ‘prioritize truth over lies, tolerance over prejudice, empathy over indifference and experts over ignoramuses’ and really I think his call could become a library mantra. If our meeting room policies encompassed this mantra then the voices of intolerance would not have a place in the library, and could not be a hirer of library meeting rooms.

However, I am not saying that these community debates and tough conversations should not be held. Libraries could sponsor tough community conversations, promoting tolerance and building understanding of the ‘other’ in our community whoever that may be — those with an accent, a different religion, a different way of being, a different way of looking. Providing safe spaces to build understanding and empathy should be a library’s goal. Providing a platform for truth from experts to challenge false facts, false science and promote community conversations will strengthen communities and democracy not promote division and intolerance. Library programs do this in many innovative, tolerant ways and our meeting rooms should not have a separate policy to our community agendas.

So choose social justice over freedom of speech is my view. I accept that there are others, and some of the stalwarts of our profession support Vickery Bowles and her position in this instance, but for me there are many other publishing platforms amplifying division in the community under the banner of freedom of speech and I do not accept that the library should be another.

Instead libraries should be standing for tolerance, truth, and empathy in everything that we do and everything that happens within our library walls from community behaviour to the events held in our meeting rooms.

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Jane Cowell

Librarian, interested in libraries, digital disruption, startups, Australian politics