The London Public Library in southwestern Ontario is standing by its decision to block The Society for Academic Freedom from holding an event featuring controversial British author and commentator Joanna Williams.
Williams’s books include Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity and How Woke Won. Her views on being woke — which has come to refer to being aware of prejudice, discrimination and social inequalities — are divisive. She questions, for instance, the impact of inclusivity and diversity on politics, academia, the media and big business, and the role they play in cancel culture.
The Society for Academic Freedom (SAFS) — which says on its website that it is opposed to “speech codes … and so-called anti-hate legislation” — had hoped to host Williams at the library’s annual general meeting this week, but its request to rent space was denied in April.
The event is now set for Friday at a London hotel and Saturday at Western University.
“There were multiple policy concerns, all of which were considered together by our senior leadership team and board in making this decision,” said Michael Ciccone, the library’s chief executive officer.
The library is committed to supporting Londoners and the community of London, and we are guided by the values in our strategic plan, which include exceptional service and anti-racism and anti-oppression.– Michael Ciccone, CEO, London Public Library
Ciccone wouldn’t list the specific policies the team considered. He also acknowledged not everyone would agree with the library’s decision.
“We exist in the public space and our decisions are sometimes subject to a wide range of public opinion which we welcome and we value,” he said.
All rental applications are evaluated and can be denied according to library policy, although very few are, he said.
“I think it’s a decision that we never come to lightly,” said Ciccone. “But in this particular case, the library is committed to supporting Londoners and the community of London, and we are guided by the values in our strategic plan, which include exceptional service and anti-racism and anti-oppression.”
‘They won’t wish my ideas away’
“I think these debates should be heard in the public square,” said Williams, who regularly touts the importance of single-sex spaces and the “biological reality” of the female sex.
Libraries are about advancing knowledge and they should be the ideal place for airing contentious views.– Joanna Williams, British author
“Libraries should be the site of public debate,” she told CBC London. “Libraries are about advancing knowledge and they should be the ideal place for airing contentious views.
“Unfortunately for the people who disagree with me, they won’t wish my ideas away,” said Williams.
“I actually think for people who disagree with me, it’s even more important that the debate be had out in public because then they can challenge me, they can ask me questions.”
“I find it disturbing and frightening that the public library would refuse to rent us space,” said SAFS president Mark Mercer. “It’s frightening, because the library is saying to all individuals and groups that they must satisfy the tastes and aspirations of the library’s managers before they can rent space.
This means that all individuals and groups are vulnerable,” said Mercer..
Libraries should be safe spaces, advocate says
Syrus Marcus Ware, a Toronto-based artist and social justice advocate, sides with the London library’s decision not to allow the event at its branch.
“It’s essential to keep libraries as a safe and free space for communities to engage. It’s one of the only spaces that doesn’t cost money to enter/stay.”
Organizations such as SAFS often use the free speech mantra to push harmful and violent language against diverse communities, said Ware.
In the fall of 2019, hundreds of people protested outside a Toronto library over an appearance by a controversial speaker whose remarks about transgender women have sparked anger in the LGBTQ community.
“I never thought I’d see a moment where we would be protesting libraries, but this was essential to keep them safe for trans and non-binary communities,” said Ware.