The London Public Library is refusing to rent theatre space to an academic freedom group, claiming a planned lecture on free speech goes against the library’s policy on workplace harassment and poses a risk of “physical danger.”
The Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS) was barred from booking a space at London, Ont.’s public library for a May 19 talk by British author Joanna Williams titled “Sex, Gender, and the Limits of Free Speech on Campus.”
SAFS is an academic society whose mandate advocates freedom in teaching, research and scholarship.”
In an email chain between SAFS and the London Public Library, provided to True North, library staff asked SAFS to review details about Williams’ talk, including PowerPoint slides and a lecture outline, to make an “assessment” of the event.
SAFS president Mark Mercer, a philosophy professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, provided samples to other talks Williams has given.
Nine days later, the library’s meetings and events coordinator, Robert Giorgini, told Mercer, “as per the Library’s police governing room rentals, we are not able to approve the rental request.”
Giorgini initially declined to elaborate on the rejection, but when pressed by Mercer for further details cited three specific policies the library claimed Williams’ talk would “engage”:
- “A risk or likelihood of physical danger to participants or the audience or misuse of the property or equipment;
- “The potential or likelihood of the event to negatively impact or impede the ability of others to enjoy the services and facilities of the Library, and/or Library operations;
- “The Renter or Event content is or is likely to be in violation of Library policy, including, but not limited to, the Library’s Rules of Conduct, Charter of Library Use or Workplace Harassment and Sexual Harassment Prevention policies.”
When asked by Mercer to explain how Williams’ lecture would infringe on any of those criteria, Giorgini said the library “will not be providing any additional information or details at this time.”
Giorgini and the London Public Library’s communications manager did not respond to a request for comment from True North.
Mercer called the library’s decision “deeply disturbing.”
“The library is acting as a censor,” he said. “Officials at the library do not like Joanna’s views or what they understand those views to be and have decided to no-platform her. The decision contravenes the library’s own codes and stated purpose.”
Mercer said there has “never been a disruptive protest at a SAFS event,” nor even a need to hire security. Even a former lecture by Jordan Peterson took place without issue or protest. Even if there was a risk of protest, however, Mercer said using that as a basis to deny space is to “give in to the heckler’s veto.”
In an email to True North, Williams said the library’s decision proves the point she intended to make in her talk about the threats to free speech.
“By refusing to host some debates but not others, these institutions are effectively taking sides, curtailing free speech and limiting the terrain of public debate,” Williams wrote. “That the London Public Library has refused to host my talk on sex, gender and the limits of free speech ironically proves the very point I intended to make – that this topic has been put off limits in an ostensibly free society. No one benefits from this censorship. Conflicts remain unresolved and disputes are driven underground.”
Williams’ talk, which is open to the public, will now take place at London’s Delta hotel, Friday from 6:30pm to 8:00pm. Mercer said SAFS is seeking internal library records to “hold the London Public Library to its own principles.”