I heard a story on the radio last week about the controversy surrounding the Toronto Public Library and its defense of free speech.

Here’s the scoop.

TPL will allow Radical Feminists Unite use of the library’s meeting room for a public discussion on gender identity and its legal impact on women in Canada. The speaker is writer and activist Meghan Murphy, founder of blog and podcast Feminist Current. Murphy’s position is that “biological sex trumps gender identity” and that “allowing men to identify as women” undermines women’s rights. Murphy was banned from Twitter in 2018 for violating its hate speech policy.

Until news of this event was released, the Toronto community considered its library a safe and welcoming shared space. Regrettably, TPL’s decision to allow the event is interpreted by many as an endorsement of hate speech; obliterating the perception of safe space. The decision is drawing harsh criticism from the LGBTQ community, local writers and even some of TPL’s own staff. The Toronto mayor was unsuccessful in convincing the library to rescind its permission. Backlash against the library has been swift and severe, with several boycotts in progress.

City librarian Vickery Bowles said at the heart of her decision is the library’s duty to protect free speech. I applaud her conviction and would make the same decision. Free speech is a fundamental right; it is part of the First Amendment of our Constitution. That right should not be bestowed or revoked based on whether one agrees or disagrees with different viewpoints. Personally, I disagree with Meghan Murphy, but I will always pick a respectful civil discussion of opposing viewpoints over attempts to suppress or ban content.

TPL’s situation raises questions. Is hate speech protected under the First Amendment? When does hate speech become a crime? I recently attended a presentation by Katie Blevins, assistant professor of media law at the University of Idaho’s School of Journalism and Mass Media. Blevins explained that speech without direct action is protected under the First Amendment. However, the Supreme Court ruled in 1942 that use of “fighting words” or statements that “by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace” are not protected (Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire). In 1992, the Court further ruled that laws can’t prohibit only some types of fighting words, like those based on racial bias (R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul). Cities may create codes language to prohibit fighting words. The City of Pullman has codified this in Section 8.26.010 (b) of their city code.

According to the FBI, hate speech becomes a hate crime when action is involved. The action taken is “a committed criminal offense motivated in whole, or in part, by the offender’s bias(es) against race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity.” The FBI reports hate crimes increased 17 percent in 2017 over the previous year.

Neill Public Library welcomes diverse ideas and opinions. Like any good public library, our policies set the framework to resist censorship, spark expression and create physical spaces for peaceful assembly. Hate crimes are not tolerated in the library, but we will champion your right to free speech.


Joanna Bailey is the director of Neill Public Library.

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