Intellectual Freedom: A path to progess, compassion, protection, and fairness

By Amy Girard, January 2022

Suzanne Nossel’s book “Dare to Speak Defending Free Speech for All” gives some very interesting perspective and draws from her experience, which includes being the CEO of PEN America.

Nossel’s discussion of free speech in the United States is comparable to discussion about the fundamental freedoms protected by Canada’s Canadian Charter of Rights:

  • freedom of conscience and religion;
  • freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
  • freedom of peaceful assembly; and
  • freedom of association.

Notably, the Canadian government describes the Charter as “a powerful force for progress, protection, compassion and fairness with the power to influence our society by interpreting laws and policies.”

Progress.  Compassion.  Protection. Fairness.           

To have progress with fairness, people need to have their voices heard which happens by exercising their fundamental freedoms.  If their ideas are not heard they can not be reflected and protected by policies/rules/laws.  By feeling heard, people will be able to let down their guard and be more open to others.  Compassion and understanding results.

Current social norms however, are curtailing people’s ability to feel confident expressing themselves.  People are not only being censored; they are also self-censoring.  The impacts of this are written about by Nossel:

“Only through the give-and-take with opponents can you persuade, in the process honing your own views and arguments to better account for valid points on the other side.  By giving in to the instinct to silence a contestable viewpoint – someone else’s or perhaps even your own – you risk narrowing the field for what opinions can be voiced.”

By discouraging, or worse, closing down debate – the chance for change is lost.

Today we see a centering of organized groups in public discussions.  Each group asserts its right to represent a whole subset of people.  They claim to speak for everyone that fits their umbrella description.  Is there any one group that can speak for everyone they claim to represent? Surely, there is a net effect of silencing people who are said to be part of the group but hold different beliefs and values.

While having groups to represent others is laudable, people need to be able to speak for themselves to represent themselves.  Autonomy is a hallmark of well-being – and I dare to guess that for the majority of people who have experienced discrimination – it is essential to have control over their thoughts and beliefs.  To have the right and ability to pursue the knowledge that will assist them in getting to the other side of whichever dilemma or obstacle they are facing. 

How can someone’s human dignity be preserved when they are treated with the paternalistic attitude: I know what is best for you?

Public libraries have an extra duty of care to protect intellectual freedom.  They are governed by the Charter and they are one of the last public places that bring culturally and economically diverse people together.  Community can not be created without people coming together.  And people can not come together if they are being set apart.

It is not possible to be diverse without diversity.

It is not possible to be tolerant by being intolerant.

It is not possible to be inclusive by excluding.

Tolerating diversity of opinion is inclusive. People may fear losing control over what ideas and opinions are expressed, but they would be cautioned to remember that governments change and historically all major social progress has been enabled due to tolerant laws and rights.

This is reflected when Nossel writes:

“The question we ask is not whether particular speech is worthy of protection but whether we want to afford our government the leeway to restrict it, knowing that once such power is granted, the officials will use it as they see fit. Affording government that authority—even if intended for sparing use only to target avowedly hateful speech–would open the door to the kinds of restraints once used to silence civil rights organizers and feminist activists. We rely instead on taboos, counterspeech, and social and institutional norm enforcement to deter and blunt the damage of speech that is hateful.”

People have the right to demand censorship, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.  The power of the demand for censorship does not lie in granting limitations, it lies in posing the question of censorship so that public discussion and awareness can happen and grow.  This in turn generates new social and institutional norms that reflect society as it changes and keeps everyone from being left behind.

By allowing each person to step forward and speak up, everyone can be included and social cohesion results.

The BCLA Intellectual Freedom Committee

The Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) of the BC Library Association has been dormant for a time and we are now resurrecting it with the intent of engaging directly with the current debate about the importance of and limits of freedom of expression. What information do we have a right to access and what information should not be be freely and publicly available? How do we judge what is misinformation and what is incontrovertible fact? What constitutes sufficient harm caused by a work (or speech) that we would choose to remove it from public access?

We welcome your thoughts, your ideas, and your challenges to our ideas.

If you would like to write a guest post, please contact Deb at da.thomas@shaw.ca with your idea.

Let’s start listening and talking to each other.

Deb Thomas & Wendy Wright, IFC co-chairs

A fresh start and opening conversation

Welcome to the BCLA Intellectual Freedom Blog. Wendy Wright and Deb Thomas, Co-chairs of the IFC, are hoping to see this as a place for conversations about intellectual freedom (IF), a place to air our differences of opinion on what IF means and what it includes, and perhaps come to some common understanding, or at minimum mutual respect, if not agreement on the way forward. We welcome guest posts.

Those of us in the profession are very aware that there is a shifting landscape in regard to IF in the library community – and increasingly in our communities.  Most recently, there have been very public challenges to materials or speakers seen to promote racism and transphobia. Additionally, creators and speakers are being judged on past actions or works and their current works deemed unworthy of being made available through libraries.


As an example, the transgender community and their allies are increasingly making the point that they believe content in materials or presentations that denies the existence of transgender and non-binary identities, advocates against equal rights for transgender people, and promotes disproven (and illegal in some jurisdictions) “treatments” like conversion therapy should be seen as hate speech, even if it falls short of the legal definition of such expression.

Some libraries have chosen to see the airing of controversial ideas as a means to encourage discussion about, analysis of, and challenges to those ideas. At the same time as a library may allow Meghan Murphy to rent a library program room and have Abigail Schrier’s Irreversible Damage:  The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters on its shelves, it may also host Drag Queen Storytimes, defend against challenges to books like Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak by Susan Kuklin(which was challenged multiple times in 2019), and be actively working to de-gender its washrooms and library card registrations. 

Other libraries and individual library workers argue that books like Irreversible Damage and speakers like Megan Murphy spread misinformation that, if taken as fact, can be harmful to trans and non-binary people. They will argue as well that the current push by some to deny opportunities for expression of certain ideas is not “cancel culture” but a righting of the current power imbalance where the privileged are more likely to be heard (published, broadcast, etc) and the less privileged are silenced.


The debate on the nature of IF is lively among librarians, writers, journalists, students, activists and others. What follows is a small sampling of recent published thought:

Alvin Schrader writes in Can Public Libraries Maintain Their Commitment to Intellectual Freedom in the Face of Outrage over Unpopular Speakers? (Centre for Free Expression. 15 August 2019):

“LGBTQ+ voices eventually became strong enough to push back, defy, and drown out the babel of hate and lies and “othering.” Social justice triumphed through the supremacy of expressive rights, not in spite of them. We insisted on more voices, not fewer.” 

“Safe space is another slippery term that is in danger of losing any coherent meaning through overuse and overbreadth of application. Recently it has been stretched from its original meaning of protection from physical violence into psychological and emotional realms, encompassing ‘trigger alerts’ and an asserted, but essentially imagined, right not to be offended or to have one’s feelings hurt or to feel threatened. Safe space is not conceptually synonymous with social justice and social responsibility. Feelings are not ideas.”

“Public libraries must protect the right of people to be mistaken. Accountability and transparency in vision, mission, and value statements as well as in leaders’ judgments demand it. To continue honouring their commitment to intellectual freedom in the face of outrage over unpopular speakers, public libraries must err on the side of a plurality of ideas and perspectives, on the side of more voices and greater access.”

K-Sue Park writes in Whose Free Speech? ((Dissent, Summer 2021):

“Young activists today do not disdain free speech; they hold different views about what constitutes a genuine threat to speech, as well as how essential it is to understand speech in terms of power.”

“…it is naïve for liberals to ignore the way the right has weaponized a narrative about a ‘woke’ left that opposes free speech—a tactic aimed at silencing the growing voice of social movements. For anyone who truly believes that free speech is important to a democratic society, it should be energizing and encouraging to watch the conversation about free speech itself open up. A plurality of diverse voices with new ideas are working to build a world that comes closer to the ideal of free expression for all.”

“Today’s left movements are thinking hard about the complex factors that shape the relationship between speech and social justice. Far from unconcerned with freedom of speech, they are determined to exercise these freedoms to further their cause. They are naming the power relations in which speech is embedded, and thereby liberating more speech. They are also asking important questions about how to better protect the people who laws have traditionally left behind.” 

David Brooks writes in How to Destroy the Truth (New York Times, 1 July 2021):

“As Jonathan Rauch brilliantly writes in his book ‘The Constitution of Knowledge,’ the acquisition of this kind of knowledge is also a collective process. It’s not just a group of people commenting on each other’s internet posts. It’s a network of institutions — universities, courts, publishers, professional societies, media outlets — that have set up an interlocking set of procedures to hunt for error, weigh evidence and determine which propositions pass muster.

An individual may be dumb, Rauch notes, but the whole network is brilliant, so long as everybody in it adheres to certain rules: No one gets the final say (every proposition might be wrong). No claim to personal authority (who you are doesn’t determine the truth of what you say, the evidence does). No retreat to safety (you can’t ban an idea just because it makes you feel unsafe).”  

Sam Popowich writes in Constituent Power and Intellectual Freedom (Red Librarian, 16 August 2019):

“…liberal pluralism is all very well if no-one is dying and if we have an eternity to work out the consequences of any difference of opinion….if we are to fully recognize the value of anyone other than white male property-owners, we also have to recognize that their lives are not being protected…”
“It is not surprising that libraries find the navigation of values (e.g. intellectual freedom vs. community empowerment) difficult…libraries can only manage their balancing act by violating one or the other.”

Brian Morton writes in A Modest Exercise in Freedom (Dissent, Summer 2021):

“The left is at its most intelligent and most ethical when it believes—and vigorously promotes the belief—that everyone has the right to be heard.”

“A tenacious commitment to freedom of expression is one of the best traditions of the democratic left. But the contemporary left—a big part of it, at any rate—has embraced the belief that unwelcome ideas and works of art cause harm, and that the proper responses to such harms are calls for retraction and apology, rather than refutation (in the case of political ideas) and more powerful art (in the case of aesthetic productions).”
“Contemporary skepticism about the idea of free expression seems to rest on two pillars.
The first is a heightened sense of distress about an old reality: the reality that the powerful can take advantage of free expression more readily than the powerless can.
The second is the startling ballooning of the idea of harm. Every affirmation of the importance of free expression that I know of, from Milton and Mill on down, comes with the important proviso that expression should be curtailed when it causes harm. What’s new in our moment is that the notion of harm has been expanded to an extraordinary degree, along with the notion of speech as violence.”

Natasha Leonard writes inA Struggle, Not a Debate (Dissent, Summer 2021):

“The thorny question remains unanswered of which exact speech acts we recognize as oppressive and worthy of shutting down. The answer cannot be that any speech a person or group finds oppressive should be seen as an oppressive speech act…”

“These decisions will necessarily involve contestation and disagreement; they require listening to communities on the frontlines of liberation struggles and being aware that it is not simply a matter of opinion or feelings as to which groups are or are not oppressed.”


What is clear is that, if we are to find a kind of balance on this issue that is commonly embraced, none of us can presume to be “right” and all of us should be prepared to have our values and beliefs challenged. Listening to each other and to the communities we serve, as Leonard suggests, and accepting, as Rauch contends, that no one should have the final say, may at least lead us to respectful conversation and an openness to elements of other points of view. That’s a start.

— Deb Thomas & Wendy Wright, BCLA IFC Co-chairs

     July 21, 2021