Staff at an Ontario public library accused a prominent British author of leaning “far-right” and nearing “hate speech” in internal deliberations about whether to allow her to give a talk at a library venue.

The Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS), a Canada-based group dedicated to free speech and academic freedom, attempted to book a theatre at the London Public Library in London, Ont. for a talk by Joanna Williams, but was barred from doing so.

The library told the group the booking violated its policies on workplace and sexual harassment and would pose a risk of property damage or personal injury if allowed.

The library refused to explain how, even when event organizers pointed out that Williams’ events had never had such issues.

In internal emails, obtained by True North under freedom of information laws, it’s clear that library management took issue with Williams’ body of work.

The booking request was quickly elevated to library CEO Michael Ciccone.

“She’s definitely controversial and would draw protests and attention,” Ciccone wrote in an email. “She considered (sic) a TERF and leans far-right without totally going there.”

In an email to True North, Williams called Ciccone’s accusation shameful.

“Justifying censorship on the basis that defending women’s rights is a ‘far right’ position is a slur not just against me but against a century of feminism,” Williams said. “The London Public Library has behaved shamefully.”

Ciccone asked his staff to “ask around a bit” to see if SAFS had been denied space elsewhere.

Ciccone later sent out a note to other library heads through a Canadian Urban Libraries Council email list.

“Has anyone else received this request for a room booking?” Ciccone asked. “The author appears to be of the Megan Murphy (sic) ilk.”

Ciccone was referencing Feminist Current founder Meghan Murphy, a gender-critical writer who has been denied event space at other libraries, though notably permitted to proceed with an event at the Toronto Public Library in face of sharp criticism.

Todd Kyle, head of the Brampton Library, replied to Ciccone suggesting SAFS’ attempt at securing a venue might be a “test.”

“We didn’t receive a booking request,” he said. “I know some people in the SAFS. Do you think this is a test?”

It was not, in fact, a test. SAFS routinely holds its annual meetings in London and had rented space from the London Public Library in 2019.

Library spokesperson Ellen Hobin replied to Ciccone that if the event were permitted, SAFS and Williams would need to be “made aware of the code of conduct / no hate speech.”

“Tricky to see how we can say no especially when we hosted them in 2019,” she said.

Neither Hobin nor Ciccone responded to a request for comment.

Ciccone floated it might be possible to deny the space on a technicality, pointing out that SAFS answered ‘no’ to a question on the booking form asking if it had third-party insurance, a requirement of booking space.

“I believe we offer a package through the City for this which I think most renters utilize,” Hobin told Ciccone.

“Oh well,” Ciccone replied.

Hobin then revisited the “hate speech” provision.

“Looking at her work though, it’s hard not to imagine that it could test the bounds of hate speech,” she wrote.

As previously reported by True North, the day after Williams’ talk was to take place, the library allowed a booking by Palestinian comedian Amer Zahr, whose past comments include explicit support for violence and designated terrorist groups.

In the Zahr case, library officials worked with Zahr’s team to combat criticism of the event and actively courted community support to defend the event.

The same people involved in the Williams decision expressed concern that cancelling Zahr’s booking would be “an insult to the London Muslim community” and “possibly be in violation of the performer’s charter (sic) rights.”

There was no such concern for Williams and SAFS.


  • Andrew Lawton

    A Canadian broadcaster and columnist, Andrew serves as a journalism fellow at True North and host of The Andrew Lawton Show.