The books are next

Coming soon.

The National Post‘s Chris Selley, on the moral panic over allegedly anti-transgender feminist Meaghan Murphy speaking at the Toronto Public Library:

Nothing she said justified the massive crowd outside protesting the event, which forced those exiting to run a gauntlet of people yelling “shame!” or slip through a police-protected corridor. But this was the culmination of an extraordinary few weeks that saw some of the Toronto library’s staunchest supporters turn on the institution and its head librarian, Vickery Bowles, for allegedly tolerating “transphobic hate speech.”

Bowles has gamely defended the library’s commitment to free speech as an intellectual principle: “It’s so tied to the core values of library service,” she said in an interview. And she has defended it as a legal obligation, under the Charter, for a public institution to protect “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression.”

Both approaches have fallen on deaf ears.

For free speech purists, it might be comforting to think the protesters — perhaps 500 strong — represented a fringe group (who were themselves, after all, exercising their right to free speech). But if that’s true, it’s a well-connected fringe. Two arch-progressive city councillors, Mike Layton and Kristyn Wong-Tam, have a motion before Toronto city council on Tuesday asking staff to recommend “strengthening” the library’s room rental policies. Toronto Pride has threatened “consequences to our relationship” — presumably excommunication, which was the Vancouver Public Library’s fate after allowing Murphy to speak on its premises.

To his everlasting shame, even ostensibly conservative Mayor John Tory got in on the act.

“There are thousands of places this event could be held in Toronto other than the public library,” he said in a statement. “When it comes to public buildings, I believe we should hold ourselves to the highest standard.”

That’s completely backwards. “The library is acting as a part of government,” said Bruce Ryder, a constitutional law professor at Osgoode Hall who helped the library update its room rental policies two years ago, after a similar controversy. It thus has a higher bar to clear — not lower — if it wants to deny a booking. “If this was private space, the protection of freedom of expression wouldn’t apply,” said Ryder.

Is Murphy a hateful transphobe? Beats me. I’m no expert on the subject. But, frankly, I don’t want anyone else making that decision for me.

On Twitter, Selley further notes that Toronto’s Glad Day bookstore, famously a victim of capricious and arbitrary government censorship, is now advocating for capricious and arbitrary government censorship.

Social-media-fueled activists aren’t yet marching into libraries, seizing books they find offensive, and destroying them. Maybe they still have enough self-awareness to realize who else tends to do that kind of thing.

But give it just a few more years. If certain ideas are too offensive to be expressed in person at the library, what is the argument for allowing offensive ideas in books to remain on the shelves?

A voice of reason

Chris Selley in the National Post:

As if contemplating a tormented child taking her own life isn’t horrible enough, we must now live with online blame-mobs grabbing hold of a narrative and demanding justice — and not necessarily in a courtroom. We are seeing it again this week in the sad case of Rehtaeh Parsons, a Nova Scotia 17-year-old who killed herself last week, her mother Leah Parson claims, after being raped and bullied relentlessly by peers over photographs of the assault.

On Facebook, in comment sections and on blogs, people are calling for Rehtaeh’s alleged rapists and bullies to be outed, named and shamed (only without using the word “alleged”). Some want Anonymous — which fingered the wrong alleged culprits after British Columbia teenager Amanda Todd committed suicide in October — to get in on the act. What could go wrong, right?

Plenty. Being accused of rape is a hell of a stigma nowadays, and rightly so. That’s why we leave such accusations to the professionals.

The police say they investigated Rehtaeh’s allegations, but found insufficient evidence to lay charges. Ms. Parsons accuses the police of neglecting to interview the accused until “much, much later.” And the police should answer for that, if it’s true. But when cops screw up, cases fall apart. Neither vigilantism nor compromising the usual standards by which justice is done is an appropriate remedy.

[…]

In her tremendous new book about bullying, Sticks and Stones, Emily Bazelon relates the story of Phoebe Prince, a Massachusetts 15-year-old who committed suicide in 2010 after an intense bout of high-school drama. It was nothing you wouldn’t expect a healthy child to pull through, and indeed Phoebe suffered from clinical depression (the “reddest red flag for suicide,” as Ms. Bazelon puts it). But the media reduced the narrative to simple “bullycide” — “the paradigmatic parable of teenage evil.”

Elected prosecutors charged six students with a dizzying range of offences: Assault with a deadly weapon for one who threw a pop can at Phoebe; statutory rape for two older teenagers who had consensual sex with her; a civil rights violation for one who called Phoebe an “Irish slut”; and causing bodily injury, i.e., Phoebe’s death. There was nothing to support this. It was madness, and a sane prosecutor eventually all but abandoned the cases. But in the meantime, worse than nothing was accomplished.

Update: Parsons’s mother is speaking out against vigilantism:

The mother of a Halifax teenager who killed herself after allegedly being raped and photographed by four boys is making a public plea for people to leave the boys linked to the allegations alone.

Rehtaeh Parsons, 17, died on the weekend after trying to take her life last Thursday. Leah Parsons says her daughter was raped by four boys when she was 15, and then became the victim of bullying and harassment after a picture taken on the night of the alleged attack was circulated.

[…]

Parsons took to Facebook to tell her daughter’s story and shame the unnamed alleged perpetrators. By Wednesday morning, an online petition calling for an inquiry into the police investigation had garnered more than 6,000 signatures.

“I don’t want more bullying. Rehtaeh wouldn’t want more bullying. I don’t think that’s justice,” Parsons said.

She called the police investigation into the case horrible, but said she doesn’t want vigilantes to go after the boys, none of whom have been charged.

“I think they need to be accountable for while that they did,” Parsons said. “I don’t want them to be physically harmed.”