It is unsettling when libraries are pressured to denounce intellectual freedom — something that, unfortunately, has become more frequent in recent years, as social justice advocacy has increasingly resorted to censorship. Yet in the face of harassment by activists keen on banning books deemed problematic, Canada’s libraries have held firm to their values, refusing to disinvite unpopular speakers or remove contentious books, and should be applauded for it.
Most attempts to censor libraries have historically come from social conservatives, but progressive activists have now largely supplanted them. This is especially true when it comes to conflicts over trans rights. In recent years, Canadian Pride festivals have aggressively pushed for allegedly transphobic books and speakers to be censored — as happened in Toronto and Vancouver in 2019, and in Halifax last June.
Halifax Pride attempted to strong-arm Halifax Public Libraries (HPL) into removing “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters” by Abigail Shrier — a book that is considered transphobic by many, but which falls short of Canada’s legal definition of hate speech — from its catalogue. When HPL refused to ban the book, citing its commitment to intellectual freedom, Halifax Pride responded with a highly publicized boycott.
Thankfully, Canada’s municipal library systems have not been left to fight censorship alone. In late July, the Canadian Federation of Library Associations (CFLA) published a letter that emphatically condemned attempts to ban Shrier’s book.
In its letter, the CFLA deferred to both the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It affirmed that Canadians have the fundamental right to access all ideas and opinions, as well as the freedom to express their thoughts publicly, and that libraries have a core responsibility to uphold both of those rights. The CFLA reiterated its longstanding position that “only the courts may abridge free expression rights in Canada.”
The rights invoked by the CFLA are not trivial. Canadian law values freedom of expression because it considers open discussion to be integral to self-actualization and democratic governance. Liberal democracy can’t thrive when citizens are denied opportunities to form their own perspectives on the world.
For this reason, Canadian jurisprudence concerning free expression sets a very high bar for what counts as illegal hate speech. When courts are sensitive to any hint of political censorship, almost all kinds of speech are permitted, including speech that is offensive, hurtful or even unacceptable to some — because on the whole, the benefits outweigh the costs.
Freedom of expression is never unlimited, but, as alluded to by the CFLA, it is ultimately up to the courts to adjudicate what counts as hate speech. Fundamental freedoms would be toothless if institutions could unilaterally opt out of them, or if they could be nullified by activist mobs.
If activists feel that books or speakers are unacceptably hateful, they ought to either make their case to Canada’s courts or lobby politicians to re-examine our laws. Either route offers opportunities for activist claims to be evaluated in detail, with input from other stakeholders and with clear accountability mechanisms.
Activists can also put in the work to persuade others about why a book or speaker is wrong. There is no shortage of ways to support trans rights in a manner that’s consistent with Canada’s core values.
When activists instead opt to attack libraries for simply defending constitutional rights, the result is an erosion of faith in our institutions and democratic norms. Resolving conflict through attempted censorship, rather than through persuasion, also contributes to political polarization, which, according to a 2019 study in the Journal of Democracy, is correlated with democratic backsliding.
Some argue that it is fine to boycott libraries because boycotts are themselves a kind of political expression. This is true to an extent, but also misses the point: boycotts are generally legal, but actions have both a legal and a moral dimension; attacking libraries for defending a fundamental right is legal, but arguably immoral.
Many Western countries have witnessed a loss of faith in liberal democracy and its associated principles, as partisanship cleaves societies apart and traditional civic institutions, which usually mediate conflict and bind people together, lose their traditional aura of authority. One need only look to the United States to understand what that looks like and why it is bad.
It is crucial, then, especially in today’s political climate, that civic institutions retain their commitments to democratic principles, rather than allow themselves to be compromised for the sake of narrower political battles.
To make a comparison, consider the contention surrounding universities and free expression. Like libraries, universities are a kind of civic institution tasked with making knowledge more accessible. However, universities are far more politicized and often fail to protect free expression on their campuses (so much so that Ontario and Alberta, and soon Quebec, have had to legislate stronger free speech protections).
As a result, universities, which by all rights should strive to be neutral institutions, are instead battlefields for Canada’s culture wars. Rather than bringing people together in the shared pursuit of knowledge, they instead contribute to an adversarial political atmosphere, which is unhealthy for our democracy.
It is good that Canada’s libraries have been firmly committed to their principles and have resisted inappropriate politicization, even when those principles are contentious and create difficult conversations with other stakeholders. While trans rights are important, the rights of any marginalized group must be advocated for in a way that respects democratic values and institutions — the very foundation of minority rights in our country.
The big issues are far from settled. Sign up for the NP Comment newsletter, NP Platformed.
Adam Zivo: Pride boycott of Halifax library a disturbing attack on free expression
Chris Selley: Libraries are no enemy of Pride, but they are the original free speech ‘safe spaces’