London Ontario’s Public Library Bans Society for Academic Freedom

  In mid-May, True North columnist Andrew Lawton reported that the London Public Library in Ontario refused to rent space for an annual public lecture organized by the Society for […]
Published on June 2, 2023


In mid-May, True North columnist Andrew Lawton reported that the London Public Library in Ontario refused to rent space for an annual public lecture organized by the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS).

Founded in 1992, SAFS is a Canadian academic organization with a mandate to “defend freedom in teaching, research and scholarship.” It is non-profit, non-partisan, and entirely financed by membership fees and voluntary contributions.

Members of SAFS from across Canada promote “reasoned debate on issues of academic freedom and scholarship.” They come from a variety of positions on the political spectrum and bring a valuable diversity of opinion to the public square. The majority are practicing or retired university academics.

The library turned down SAFS’s request to rent space on the grounds that the participation of their invited speaker, British author and University of Kent lecturer Joanna Williams, would violate the library’s policy on workplace harassment and pose a risk of “physical danger.”

Williams’s 2022 book was “How Woke Won: The Elitist Movement That Threatens Democracy, Tolerance and Reason.” SAFS invited her to Canada to give a lecture on the subject of “Sex, Gender, and the Limits of Free Speech on Campus.”

During the rental application process, SAFS President Mark Mercer, a philosophy professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, was asked by the library to provide a full description of the proposed presentation. The library wanted documentation including PowerPoint slides and a proposed lecture outline.

Mercer informed the library that he didn’t have PowerPoint slides or an outline of Williams’s forthcoming talk. “She probably doesn’t either, yet,” he explained to me in a telephone interview.

He did provide links to lectures by Williams that followed the publication of her 2016 book on “Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity.”

One-Way Harassment Policy

Nine days later, the library’s meetings and events coordinator, Robert Giorgini, told Mercer, “As per the Library’s policy governing room rentals, we are not able to approve the rental request.”

Initially, Giorgini didn’t give any details about the decision, but when pressed he came up with a standard trifecta of official anxieties.

Allegedly, the presence of a group like SAFS would produce “A risk or likelihood of physical danger to participants or the audience or misuse of the property or equipment;” and “The potential or likelihood of the event to negatively impact or impede the ability of others to enjoy the services and facilities of the Library, and/or Library operations.”

The library’s final concern stood out for me: “The Renter or Event content is or is likely to be in violation of Library policy, including, but not limited to, the Library’s Rules of Conduct, Charter of Library Use or Workplace Harassment and Sexual Harassment Prevention policies.”

When Giorgini was asked to explain how Williams’s lecture had anything to do with such things, he said, “[The library] will not be providing any additional information or details at this time.”

The coordinator’s response sounded eerily like something one might expect from a Soviet-era KGB officer being asked for information about the status of a political prisoner. Lawton reported that Mercer found the library’s reaction “deeply disturbing.”

With regard to allegations about physical danger and harassment, Mercer pointed out that there has “never been a disruptive protest at a SAFS event,” nor the need to hire security. He asserted that the library’s risk assessment was simply wrong.

In fact, the 2019 SAFS public lecture, which also featured a controversial international speaker, had been held very peacefully at the same London Public Library without objection or incident.

Mercer told me that “part of the important business of a public library is to provide affordable space for public discourse and an open exchange of ideas.” He confirmed that, in his opinion, the library was contradicting its own codes and purpose.

Empty Support for Intellectual Freedom

In a 2021 policy document (pdf), the London Public Library reminded citizens that:

“Intellectual Freedom is guaranteed as a basic democratic right by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and is defined as a universal right by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Library authorities went on to assert that “all people have the right to access expressions of knowledge, creative thought and intellectual activity. The Library supports, defends and promotes intellectual freedom and actively advocates in defence of the rights of library users to read, seek information, and express their views. The purpose of this policy is to provide broad direction on the access to intellectual content through services, collections and programs offered by the Library.”

Mercer told True North that SAFS is seeking internal library records to “hold the London Public Library to its own principles.” In the case of this innocuous rental request, one can only assume that the library staff don’t share the views of the invited speaker and decided to de-platform her.

In an email to Lawton, Joanna Williams herself said the library’s decision proved the point she intended to make in her talk.

“By refusing to host some debates but not others, these institutions are effectively taking sides, curtailing free speech and limiting the terrain of public debate,” she wrote.

In our imperial Reich of the Woke, the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship has been bloodied but unbowed.

Williams’s public talk was rescheduled to take place at London’s Delta hotel on the evening of May 19. The SAFS Annual General Meeting and Conference, which has convened in London, Ontario, for the past 20 years, will still go on at Western University.

Free citizens in London should turn out and support SAFS’s defense of intellectual freedom. It’s something their public library claims to do, but doesn’t.


Bill Brooks is a Senior Fellow at Frontier Centre For Public Policy. This commentary was first published here.

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