On Friday, the head librarian at the Seattle Public Library made an announcement: Despite protests and calls for cancellation, a controversial group of speakers will be allowed to hold an event in the library next month.
The event, titled “Fighting the New Misogyny: A Feminist Critique of Gender Identity,” is being hosted by the Women’s Liberation Front, or WoLF, a group of feminist activists who are often accused of transphobia for their efforts to exclude transgender women from traditionally female spaces like bathrooms, locker rooms, shelters, and prisons, as well as for their assertion that rights should be based on sex, not on gender.
This decision, it seems, was not made lightly. After the talk was announced in December, the library was inundated by comments from both transgender activists and their allies, many of whom wanted the group banned, as well as by advocates for free speech, who requested that the talk be allowed to proceed.
This put the library in the difficult position of balancing the concerns of transgender staff and patrons with the First Amendment, which dictates that, with few exceptions, governmental bodies (which include public libraries) can’t limit anyone’s right to free speech. This, in fact, is exactly why WoLF chose that spot: They can be deplatformed in privately owned spaces, but not in public institutions.
“Historically, when women have attempted to organize to talk about our rights, privacy, and safety, our detractors have gone after venues and threatened violence and harassed property owners and persuaded them to cancel our events," WoLF president Kara Dansky told me. “We've been almost completely no-platformed when we try to talk about women's rights, but libraries are spaces where they are not permitted to engage in viewpoint discrimination.”
Marcellus Turner, SPL’s head librarian, acknowledged the concerns that trans patrons may have with this group while also affirming the institution’s commitment to free speech and intellectual freedom.
“These values are easy to stand by when we agree with the viewpoints being shared, but when viewpoints challenge us in uncomfortable ways, it certainly becomes more difficult,” Turner wrote in a statement. “It is in these difficult moments we must stand particularly firm in supporting the right to free speech in order to preserve that right for everyone. To narrow or restrict this value based on a group’s beliefs or affiliations would put at risk the hard-fought past efforts of, and future support for, other groups who need these same values and laws on their side.”
This decision prompted anger among some trans activists, who have promised to protest at the event, but for advocates for free speech, it’s a welcome announcement. Recent years have seen a decline in free speech as a value in the United States, both in government and among the public. The Trump administration, for instance, threatened to cut funding for a Middle East studies program run by two universities in North Carolina unless the curriculum was amended to positively portray Christianity and Judaism. Other Republican lawmakers have attempted to criminalize “obscene pornography” (whatever that is), and at least 22 states have passed laws that prohibit government contractors from boycotting Israel.
But this trend is not limited to the political right, especially when it comes to higher education. University students and faculty have attempted to deplatform controversial speakers all over the country (a tactic that usually backfires by bringing the speaker more attention and making the opposition appear intolerant of intellectual freedom). Universities across the United States are now requiring job candidates to sign “diversity statements,” which, no matter how worthy the cause, are reminiscent of the loyalty oaths professors were required to sign under McCarthyism. And at the University of Connecticut, two students were arrested for shouting a racial slur, not directed at anyone, but within other students’ hearing. They were sentenced to six months probation as well as community service and diversity and bias training.
Elsewhere, professors have been censured or fired for expressing political opinions others might not like after outrage campaigns on both the left and the right: A professor at Babson College, for instance, was fired last week for posting a joke on Facebook about which American heritage sites Iran should target in response to President Trump’s threat to attack Iranian cultural sites. In Texas, a professor of Ancient Greece was run out of his home by student protesters after he was (wrongly) alleged to have condoned sex with minors.
In his case, the university affirmed his rights to academic freedom, but closer to home, two UW professors, including meteorologist Cliff Mass and computer scientist Stuart Reges, have accused the university of punishing them for expressing views that offend the orthodox left. (In Mass’s case, he says it was his refusal to support a statewide carbon tax; in Reges’s case, it was an essay he wrote arguing that the reason more women aren’t in tech isn’t due to systemic sexism but a lack of interest.)
In light of this trend, Turner’s statement is a powerful one. But the truth is, legally, he didn’t have any other choice: While private businesses, universities, or institutions are within their rights to ban, deplatform, or censure whoever they like, public schools and institutions, including the Seattle Public Library, are bound by the Constitution.
“The library doesn’t have the ability to discriminate based on the viewpoint being espoused,” says Caitlin Ring Carlson, a law professor at Seattle University and the author of the forthcoming book Hate Speech. “Legally, they would find themselves in hot water if they tried to say, ‘We’re not going to let WoLF in but we will let in, for example, Black Lives Matter.” And there’s good reason for this. “You can easily see a situation, regardless of which party is in charge, when the government could point to speech they just don't like and call that hate speech,” Carlson says.
This, in fact, is one of the few ways that the United States really is exceptional, even among other Western democracies. In Germany, for instance, you can be jailed for denying the Holocaust (as an 89-year-old woman was in 2018). In England, the police will come to your house if someone complains about hostile tweets. Similar laws are in effect all over Europe and Canada, but in the US, everyone’s voice is protected, which serves to not just to protect the ruling class but to protect minority populations and dissenting voices, as Marcellus Turner noted in his statement.
“All communities, and particularly vulnerable communities, rely on free speech protections to reach public understanding and advance their rights or beliefs,” Turner wrote. “I believe that, once one exemption to free speech is accepted, that same exemption will be used to suppress the speech and views of others in our community and beyond. In 2019, for example, we saw communities lobby their library systems to censor LGBTQ children's books in Kansas and West Virginia, a transgender author in Texas, and Drag Queen Story Times right here at home. Deciding who gets to gather and speak, and what they get to speak about, opens up a slippery slope for public libraries that can’t be controlled or defended. The practice would certainly harm the people who need these protections the most.”
The talk is scheduled to take place on February 1 at 7 p.m., and just as the panelists' rights to speak are protected by law, so are the trans activists’ rights protest outside. That’s the thing about the First Amendment: It protects all of us in this country, no matter what it is we believe in.