As It Happens

'I'm not going to reconsider': Toronto's top librarian refuses to bar speaker critical of transgender rights

Toronto's public library is standing by its decision to permit a third-party event featuring a writer and activist who argues against transgender rights, despite mounting opposition from authors, politicians and the city's mayor.

Vickery Bowles says letting Meghan Murphy speak is a matter of 'standing up for free speech'

Vickery Bowles, city librarian for the Toronto Public Library, says she will not back down from allowing Meghan Murphy to speak at event at one of the library's branches. (Shawn Benjamin/CBC)

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The Toronto Public Library is standing by its decision to rent out space to a third-party event featuring a writer and activist who argues against transgender rights, despite mounting opposition from authors, politicians and the city's mayor.

Meghan Murphy, who runs the website Feminist Current, has argued that "allowing men to identify as women" undermines women's rights, and that transgender women should not be allowed in women's spaces. 

She has publicly opposed Bill C-16, which made it illegal to discriminate based on gender identity and expression, and was banned from Twitter in 2018 for violating its hate speech policy. 

Authors Alicia Elliott, Catherine Hernandez and Carrianne Leung say they will no longer participate Toronto Public Library (TPL) events in light of its decision, and have launched a petition decrying the TPL for allowing "hate speech to be disseminated" at the Oct. 29 discussion.

In an emailed statement to As It Happens, Murphy said she supports "human rights for all" and that many women "have very serious concerns about the impact of gender identity legislation on women and girls."

"It's incredibly disappointing that their voices and arguments have not been given fair treatment in the media, and it is appalling that so many who consider themselves progressive people have smeared, threatened, bullied, and ostracized those who do speak out," she said. 

Murphy wrote three opinion pieces for CBC in 2017

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke to Vickery Bowles, city librarian for the Toronto Public Library, about the decision. Here is part of their conversation. 

Did you know that Meghan Murphy would be part of this panel before you rented the space?

Absolutely, we knew that. 

And you knew that Ms. Murphy has argued that trans women should not be allowed into women's locker rooms ... bathrooms or prisons, and that allowing people to self-declare their legal gender will "nullify women's rights." You knew all of that? 

Yes, we did. We were well aware of the Vancouver Public Library controversy, where Meghan Murphy was allowed to speak. There's actually a YouTube video of that event, which we reviewed.

And the room rental purpose was to have an educational and open discussion on the concept of gender identity and its legislation ramifications on women in Canada. 

Meghan Murphy runs the website Feminist Current and says transgender women should not be allowed in women's bathrooms, locker rooms or prisons.

The purpose of this — to look at what does it mean for society, the law and women — it wasn't an educational session, was it? This is someone who says that these rights should not exist, is that not the case?

Well, it's a discussion. It's part of a civil discourse that people are having in the larger community about gender identity.

What is that discussion? What are the two sides of that discussion?

We are a democratic institution and we are standing up for free speech. That's what I'm standing up for. I'm not getting into a discussion about the two sides of this issue, or the three sides of this issue, or the four sides of this issue. 

But if you have somebody within that discussion who denies that these rights should exist ... is that really a side? Or is that denying somebody their rights?

People in the community, on social media, have been describing this as hate speech. It's not defined under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ... as a hate speech. Otherwise, Meghan Murphy would not be allowed to speak about these things. She would be facing criminal charges. But she's not. 

Sometimes ... when you're defending free speech, you're in a very uncomfortable position where you're defending perspectives and ideas and viewpoints that many in the community, or a few in the community, whatever, find offensive. 

But it's at that time that it's most important to stand up for free speech. That is what makes Canada a democratic country, and that is what we need today more than ever. 

Sometimes what we call free speech is hurtful speech. And we have a situation, as you know, the numbers are that about 20 per cent of trans people [in Ontario] have been physically or sexually assaulted due to their identity [according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.] Even more have been verbally threatened or harassed. So how do you safeguard them physically and their rights, if you feel that it's within others' rights to express ideas that deny those people their rights? 

I am committed, and the library is committed, to offering safe and welcoming space for everyone, including members of the trans community.

But as a public library and as a public institution, we have an obligation to stand up for our democratic values and principles, and that free speech is something that protects everyone.

But it really — and I really need to emphasize this — it really protects the marginalized voices in our society. And if it wasn't for free speech, those marginalized voices would not be heard.

But you also have within your policy that the library reserves right to deny or cancel a booking "that is likely to promote, would have the effect of promoting discrimination, contempt or hatred for any group or person." Do you think that that is not what was happening here? 

There is a very high bar for establishing what is hate speech in this country. It is established in the Criminal Code of Canada, and that bar is very high to allow free speech to flourish.

You think someone has to be charged criminally before you would not allow them to speak in your facilities? 

We use the same principles in making decisions about room bookings as we do for our collections, Carol. We have a broad diversity of information and ideas and perspectives that are represented in all the books in our collections, and some of those ideas and perspectives people would find hurtful and painful.

But we're not going to remove those books from our collection. And we are not going to eliminate programs from our branches that are controversial. And we're not going to shut down room bookings because the speaker in the room booking has controversial ideas.

A group of Ontario authors say they plan to stop participating in Toronto Public Library events if a talk featuring Murphy goes ahead. (Katherine Holland/CBC)

Are there any limits to who you would rent the space? I mean, would a Holocaust denier or a white supremacist be able to speak at one of your facilities?

You may recall we had a neo-Nazi group a few years ago rent one of our facilities and we allowed it. And that was for a memorial service. It was based on the purpose of booking.

If the purpose of the booking is going to result in hate speech or a discussion about hate speech, then no, we will not allow it. 

Library workers, the union workers, they are very upset about this. They say that the staff has worked very hard to build trust in the community, to create a safe and inclusive space for everyone who uses it, and they feel that this is very damaging to that. What do you say to your own workers?

This is about free speech and, you know, I think that it's important to understand that when you're defending free speech, as a democratic institution that the library is, there are times when there are people in that community who are not happy with it, which is certainly the situation we find ourselves in right now with the decisions that we make.

There are limits to free speech. I'm sure you know that. And when free speech is hurtful or harmful to others, it is something that is shutting down the free speech of others. I'm sure you've heard that argument before.

Yes, I have.

And you don't agree, obviously.

No, I don't. I think that free speech is important, especially ... when people people are trying to shut down marginalized groups.

The marginalized groups being those who would deny the rights of those trans people, who are feeling this is hurtful. So what about those minority rights? What consideration are you giving to those minority rights?

We're giving everyone consideration in this situation.

How do you think a trans person ... would feel sitting in the room with this panel discussion? Do you think that they would feel safe?

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. 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.

And I think that speaks to the fact that this is the controversy that needs to be discussed. I think it's a controversy that needs to be out there in the public realm.

The mayor of Toronto believes in free speech, but he has asked you to not hold this event. Will you reconsider?

I'm not going to reconsider ... supporting free speech. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.