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SHEPHERD: Public libraries: the new free speech battlegrounds?

While we have largely seen the battles for free speech and open inquiry take place on university campuses, we may need to start shifting our focus to the newest target: Canada’s public libraries.

By: Lindsay Shepherd

One of Canada’s best-known feminists, Meghan Murphy, believes lesbians should not be shamed if they don’t want to have sexual relationships with transwomen (who have penises), and that transwomen who were born biologically male should not compete in women’s athletic competitions.

Because of these beliefs, her appearance at a recent panel discussion in Vancouver became the subject of intense controversy.

Last week, Murphy spoke at the Vancouver Public Library (VPL) for a panel discussion event titled “Gender Identity Ideology and Women’s Rights.”

This is an event that BC NDP vice-president Morgane Oger compared to a “holocaust denial party” and that the BC Teacher’s Federation called to cancel on the basis that Murphy was promoting hate.

Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart described the event as “despicable”, and the VPL released a statement that said although they will still host Murphy’s presentation, they find her opinions “concerning.”

These comments would likely seem quite dramatic to anyone who actually attended the event, where the main takeaway was about the need for women-only spaces so that women can share their life experiences and strategize about how to advance female liberation. Murphy made the point that while transwomen frequently insist on entering women-only spaces, the better solution is for trans people to create their own spaces.

But because Murphy believes lesbian women should not be shamed into having sex with transwomen, and that women should be entitled to their own spaces, her critics have deemed her a TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist), and she has been permanently suspended from Twitter for tweeting phrases such as “Men are not women.”

Protestors outside the library were chanting about open borders, fascism, and the KKK, but again, the reality of the panel discussion was much different.

An indigenous land acknowledgment prefaced the event, and one of the guest speakers was an indigenous elder who spoke about residential schools, land, resources and pipelines. The other panellist, esteemed women’s equality activist Lee Lakeman, tied in anti-racism and anti-oppression with her feminist message. She went so far as to say she did not believe in free speech — which, speaking of fascism, was quite strangely met with audience cheers and applause.

Though the library can be lauded for allowing the event to go ahead and not caving into calls for cancellation, they did end up changing the event time to the rather unreasonable after hours time slot of 9:30-11:30pm on a Thursday night.

Disappointingly, the VPL board later told media they now plan on reviewing their meeting room rental policy, stating “We must continuously adapt and evolve to better listen to the voices of those who are most subject to discrimination.” This unfortunately means a small minority of loud activists can be successful in shutting down an event if they claim it offends a specific identity group.

And while detractors tried to shut down radical feminists this time around (these protestors also successfully hoaxed Global News into temporarily releasing an article stating Murphy’s presentation was cancelled), these same types of detractors have also protested those on the opposite side of the spectrum: anti-feminists.

Last year, a lecture by University of Ottawa professor Janice Fiamengo at the Ottawa Public Library was shut down by fire alarm, for which a protestor was later arrested. Fiamengo hosts a popular Youtube program called the Fiamengo File where she highlights men’s issues and criticizes today’s feminist movements.  

Meghan Murphy noted that libraries are public institutions that should encourage access to ideas: “The universal mission of libraries is to provide equitable access to information and to facilitate and protect the right to freely pursue knowledge”, she said.

This is why the Vancouver Public Library’s plan to review its room rental policy based on complaints by special groups is concerning.

While we have largely seen the battles for free speech and open inquiry take place on university campuses, we may need to start shifting our focus to the newest target: Canada’s public libraries.

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