Free Speech, Top Stories

A Librarian’s Timeless Mission: Supporting Social Justice Through Freedom of Speech 

What follows is an adapted transcript of Vickery Bowles’ speech at the Empire Club in Toronto on March 9, 2020. Ms. Bowles is City Librarian at Toronto Public Library.

I recently came across an annual report published by the Toronto Public Library (TPL) entitled “Reading in Toronto, 1942”. In that document, written in the midst of a war being fought to protect our democratic freedoms, then chief librarian of the TPL, Charles R. Sanderson, shared his view with members of the Toronto Library Board on the essential and enduring role of public libraries in supporting a democratic society. He wrote: “In our annual report of a year ago, we presented a statement of our faith in the public library as the pivot of democracy. That faith remains, and it can be restated by saying that if a community is permitted to think—and democracy rests its case on this—it must have books, and books mean libraries, and libraries, for most of us, mean public libraries. We still believe with full sincerity that…making it possible for [citizens] to think with intellectual honesty, to think with informed minds, remains the primary job of public libraries, even in wartime. Without this, the rest is futility.”

So much has changed since that statement in 1942. But even in this digital age, public libraries continue to have core responsibilities to respond to intellectual-freedom challenges. And we as libraries are well-positioned to provide leadership in our communities, because public libraries help democratize the modern world by supporting literacy and access to a diversity of information and ideas.

To walk into a public space to freely attend a program, use a computer, use the study and lounge space, borrow a book or conduct research on absolutely any topic with the help of professional staff—these are significant parts of intellectual freedom. Nearly 80 years later, even though so much else has changed, Mr. Sanderson’s words remain relevant.

Certainly, the role of the public library has grown and evolved. And we are no longer just places for quiet study and reading, but also vital community hubs. We provide access to the latest technologies, from digital innovation with virtual reality headsets, to studio spaces that host e-learning and self-directed courses. We connect people with diverse cultural and leisure experiences, from indigenous programs to our sewing-fabrication studios.

Throughout this transformation, there is one thing that has not changed, and that is our focus on our core values and our fundamental commitment, as outlined in the library’s mission statement: to provide, preserve and promote universal access to a broad range of human knowledge, experience, information and ideas in a welcoming and supportive environment. Being a public institution and a government body, one of our core responsibilities is to uphold the fundamental freedoms of thought, belief, opinion and expression enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

And an important part of that commitment is making our spaces available for rent on an equitable basis to any individual or group in our community based on the purpose of the booking. Last fall, this policy was a subject of much discussion in the city of Toronto, and indeed across the country—prompted by a third-party room-rental event at the library, organized by a group called Radical Feminists Unite. This event featured a controversial speaker, Meghan Murphy.

The title of the event was “Gender Identity: What Does it Mean for Society, the Law and Women?” And it was to feature an educational and open discussion about the concept of gender identity and its legislation-related ramifications on women across Canada. The issue generated a lot of discussion. A lot of it was on social media, and a lot of that social-media discussion was negative. Some challenged the decision, including our mayor here in Toronto, representatives from organizations such as Pride Toronto, and parents of transgender children, all of whom were vocal in their opposition.

And then there were opinion articles in mainstream newspapers, many of which spoke out in support of TLP’s position, as did other voices, such as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Center for Free Expression at Ryerson University.

Yet this wasn’t about one event, opinion, or viewpoint. This is about a larger, fundamental issue that gets to the very heart of what the library is, and what it is that we do.

The public library was founded on the social-justice principles of equity and inclusion. And these are values that guide us in the work that we do each and every day. What was so surprising to me in this whole debate was that we found ourselves defending free speech; while those who were opposing the library’s decision said we were undermining the rights of the transgender community, undermining their equity and inclusion rights, and putting this vulnerable community at risk of greater discrimination and even physical harm. The juxtaposition of free speech and the social-justice principles of equity and inclusion became a significant part of the conversation. But as I pointed out in my response to this criticism, freedom of speech and equity-and-inclusion principles are not at odds with each other. In fact, they are mutually reinforcing principles that are foundational not only to public-library service but also to our democracy.

Ensuring that minority and marginalized voices are heard often leads to greater understanding and tolerance. Pushing controversial and unpopular ideas into the shadows means there’s no opportunity for debate or discussion. Racialized communities, the LGBTQ community, and other equity-seeking groups have been successful precisely because their voices have been protected.

Given all of this, why did the Meghan Murphy booking at the library result in so much controversy? Well, first and foremost, it’s important to recognize that this is an extremely emotional issue, and understandably so. The transgender community is vulnerable, often suffering discrimination and violence. Many members of this community passionately shared their experiences through presentations to our library board, and in letters and emails to the library. And the hurt and anger I heard was real.

What’s interesting, however, is that amidst all of the hurt and anger, there was an important discussion, a conversation that emerged about the discrimination faced by people in the transgender community. This brought to light important broader issues that need to be addressed, such as poverty, isolation, unemployment, and, of course, safety. And we’re responding to this at the library by developing a service plan, in consultation with the community, to address our collections, our programs and our collaborations, our staff training, and our policy development.

We need to demonstrate cultural humility, highlighting our desire to learn from others and their lived experiences. And part of the way we can do that is by providing forums to discuss and debate the issues. These are the paths to social equity and inclusion. And this is what drives social change for the betterment of all. Community activism is based on free speech. And so it’s critical for us to protect free speech so that community activism can thrive.

We’re living through what some people call “cancel culture,” wherein there’s little to no tolerance for opinions that are outside the mainstream, especially if members of a group feel that they’re threatened or hurt by the views expressed. And some people claim a view should not be tolerated if it makes them feel unsafe. And I can tell you, I certainly heard that a lot during this whole controversy.

People asked me: How can the library offer a welcoming and supportive environment if it allows people such as Meghan Murphy to speak at the library? Well, the answer is that reflecting diversity in terms of the people, the ideas, the books, the programs, and yes, even the room bookings, is foundational to creating a welcoming and supportive environment. And this will include content that will be offensive to some. We welcome everyone into our spaces without judgment. When people come to the library, we support them as they pursue their interests and make sure that they are not discriminated against or harassed in any part of the process.

Another aspect to this: Many people contacted me either through email, or notes, or talking to me individually, telling me that they supported my decision, but they didn’t feel they could share their views publicly because of possible reprisal from friends or colleagues, or on social media.

I think this provides yet another telling perspective on the state of free speech. Some of you may not realize this, but, historically, libraries have faced their greatest challenges to intellectual freedom from people asking us to remove books from our collections. And this still happens, of course. However, increasingly, libraries throughout North America are facing challenges to program content and third-party room bookings. In the United States, for instance, the state legislatures of Missouri and Tennessee both have proposed legislation to establish parental-review boards that would have the authority to remove content and programs they feel are offensive or inappropriate for children. These initiatives are targeted at LGBTQ content.

Believing in freedom of speech means believing in freedom of expression for all. The late Elliot L. Shelkrot, long-time head of the Philadelphia Public Library, once said that democracy depends on an informed population. And where can people get the information they need? At the library—by accessing books with controversial ideas and unpopular opinions, by sitting in a room with hundreds of people debating and discussing contentious issues. Or even by taking a workshop on how to run for political office, even if you don’t have any public-service experience or you’re not born into the right family. We open up doors. We open up people’s minds to new opportunities for discussion that connect us to each other and teach us to listen.

And so how did all this play out with the third-party rental featuring Meghan Murphy? Well, there were a few hundred protesters outside the Palmerston branch of the library here in Toronto on October 29th, 2019. They showed up and voiced their opposition to the event and exercised their right to free speech. Meghan Murphy had a police escort into the branch to deliver her presentation to about 100 attendees, most of whom were women. So Ms. Murphy and the attendees were all able to exercise their right to free speech and expression as well. And with the help of 40 – 50 police officers and a few staff, the evening concluded without any incident.

Last year, similarly, we brought to life the library’s commitment to opening doors and new avenues to discussion with the launch of what has become a hugely popular series for us. These are public programs called “On Civil Society“. This series of events and debates is run by the library across many of our 100 branches. It is expressly designed to open up difficult conversations and explore what comprises a civil society.

For generations, public libraries have been a democratizing force in the world, supporting civil society and helping us learn about the world in all of its complexities. With so many challenges to freedom of speech, it’s imperative that we continue to have open, uncensored discourse, and listen to, respect, and learn from each other’s perspectives. We need to hear more voices, not fewer voices. And that’s what public libraries allow us to do each and every day.



Vickery Bowles is City Librarian at Toronto Public Library (TPL). This text is adapted from Ms. Bowles’ March 9th presentation to the Empire Club of Canada, entitled “Debate in a Complex World. Web links contained in this article were added by Quillette during the editing process.


  1. Yes, and we do such a poor job of teaching economics and critical thinking that people continue to act irrationally, holding false notions that make us anti-free market, anti-liberty, anti-science and hold on to dreams of a social utopia without regard to human nature and how real benefits to most people on Earth have been achieved.

  2. First and foremost: Well done Ms. Bowles!

    It seems that the practitioners of the dark arts of Marxism, under the gossamer-thin disguise of “social democracy” are on the march again.
    Perhaps too much time has passed but it seems incredible that a totalitarian ideology, responsible for the deaths of millions in the last 100 years, can still gain a toe-hold.

    Ironically, library shelves are well-stocked with indisputable accounts of the human disasters wrought by totalitarian regimes particularly in Germany, Russia, Spain and China (possibly the worst)

    And now the evil hallmarks of their strategy are evident.
    Get control of thought and ideas by turfing ‘counter-revolutionaries’ from education.
    Expunge and re-write history to suit the current mantra.
    Suppress opposition.

    Oh sure, the books aren’t being burned, just removed lest they offend a member of the victim grievance club.
    Counter-revolutionaries are ‘cancelled’ ie; disappeared socially, not actually sent to camps.
    But the intent and the results are the same as soon as one person says “I agreed with you but I was afraid to say so”.

    Whether this looming threat can be stopped or if we’re just going to be another society that will have to learn the hard way remains to be seen.

    Know this Ms. Bowles - you do not stand alone!

  3. So Ms. Murphy and the attendees were all able to exercise their right to free speech and expression as well. And with the help of 40 – 50 police officers and a few staff, the evening concluded without any incident.

    There is something very sad about this if each Canadian’s exercise of her right to free speech can be assured only when she obtains the services of 40-50 police officers.

  4. You left off Cambodia. Maybe not the absolute worst in terms of total number of people murdered (somewhere north of a million), but if you take into account the total percentage of the population killed by their own government, and that it took them less than 4 years to do all the killing, I’d say Brothers 1-5 should make the Commie HOF, even if not on their first ballot.

  5. Who are this “we”? :slight_smile: I am no part of this “we.” (I know what you mean, I’m half kidding.) This is to be expected if you turn education over to government. They are making the children into state worshipers. Filling their heads with lies.

  6. One could hear the constraints of political correctness on the writers voice, even as she argued for freedom of speech and viewpoint diversity. It’s an interesting argument though, one doesn’t come across instances where equity is genuinely merited- I suppose that in some ways access to an unfettered public library system should be included under this header.

  7. Ms. Bowles is a very brave woman.

    I’m old enough to remember people standing up to the censorship/cancellation campaign waged by the religious right in the 1980s.

    It takes FAR MORE courage to stand up to the SJW campaign being waged today. The biggest difference is that the right wingers ultimately were a fringe group. By contrast, the SJW mindset is deeply entrenched in academia, K-12 education, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, fine arts, major publishing houses, corporate HR Departments, and the mainstream media.

    Keep fighting the good fight, Ms. Bowles.

  8. Victim tyranny is a little bitch. And the tyranny of a miniscule minority over the population at large is a right cunt.

    My apologies to those who might be offended by vulgarity, but what I love about Quillette is the lack of censorship. Adults can decide what they want to hear, no? Not according to the Toronto protesters. And they’re not trying to shut down vulgar speech or incitement to violence either. According to them, stating simple biological facts is extremely dangerous and must be stopped at all costs.

    What a world…

  9. The question is does victimhood trump the rights of others, including the Right to Free Expression? If so then it is easy to understand why so many tout their victimhood over their perseverance. Political Correctness is tyranny as Benitacanova has already pointed out. Modern day tyrants come with a smile and good intentions. “We don’t want anyone to be hurt or uncomfortable.” “We are doing it for the children.” I find it hurtful and uncomfortable to have my basic civil rights in jeopardy. Robbing the parents of their civil rights harms children. No one is forced to listen or attend.

  10. This whole idea of avoiding discomfort , safe spaces etc is a very transparent and successful ploy to prevent any opponent from arguing back.

    This mindset though is particularly jarring in relation to the virus that is now on the loose. I wonder how talk of avoiding discomfort and upset will sound in a post pandemic world.

  11. “The public library was founded on the social-justice principles of equity and inclusion.”

    Once upon a time there was the word “Justice”. For literally thousands of years it was sufficient to denote something essential to human moral life. Then someone decided to qualify it with the adjective “Social”. Now, either “Social-Justice” denotes the same thing as “Justice”, or it doesn’t. If it does then the “Social” is superfluous and should be dropped. If it doesn’t, and if it denotes something else, then what it denotes is not “Justice” and the “Justice” is a specious adjunct to the “Social”, being employed in order to conscript the favourable connotations of “Justice” to the purpose of gaslighting the public as to the value of the “Social”, and should be replaced with another word which says what is really meant without deception. Principles of “equity and inclusion”, by which really is meant “undeserved equality and uncritical affirmation” have nothing to do with Justice.

    The noxious attempt by a group of mentally ill and emotionally disturbed activists to abrogate the principle of freedom of speech is a paradigmatic expression of what is actually meant by the principles of “equity and inclusion”.

  12. Well put.

    We could say the same about other strange collocations of words used by those who want to manipulate the language to increase their own power. ‘‘Gay marriage’’ is another example.

  13. I was thrown by that quote too. I thought libraries were founded on principles of charity, generosity, and education.

  14. @Kiashu @PeterfromOZ I suppose it really depends on what you are educated in, and on what viewpoints you are defending. For example, transnational institutions are measurably worse than national institutions, but you wouldn’t hear it from the average university student. Virtually every advanced economy around the world has done a Government study which shows that immigrants are net contributors by comparing the average migrant to the average citizen, but this ignores the basic fact that only the top 20% of the population contribute more than they take out, and the bottom 60% are all net losses- so any additional drain on the communal pot of resources involves existing resources being spread thinner.

    Similarly, most of the scientific evidence supports AGW, but most people accept that the unachievable, but politically expedient and arbitrary 1.5 C goal is the point at which apocalyptic disaster strikes and people begin to starve. Nothing could be further from the truth. None of the more dire predictions begin to happen until above 2.5 C, which also happens to be the point at which public spending and innovation can be brought to bear to a rational levels to avert long term structural risks. Many college professors actually believe that climate change has been responsible for recent extreme weather events, when the scientific consensus of the IPCC has categorically stated that they have low confidence that climate change is a significant factor in these events (although admittedly by 2100 there is both an incremental increased risk and/or magnitude to these types of phenomenon, given no change).

    My point would be that there does seem to be a particular set of unfounded beliefs, or distortions of scientific fact, which go along with being university educated these days which interfere with basic truth-gathering function. Many of these axioms are awash with internal contradictions. For example, if all cultures are equal, and we simultaneously don’t expect the same record on human rights from non-Western nations, isn’t this just another way of the university educated saying that they are all endemically racist?

  15. “poorly informed”

    This back and forth reminds me of the old Ronald Reagan quote: “The trouble with our Liberal friends is not that they’re ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.”

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