Intellectual Freedom in Canada: Freedom to Read Week 2014

Flag Image © Charles Pachter
Friday, February 28, 2014

By Jackie Marchildon

“Intellectual freedom is the freedom to think,” says Franklin Carter, editor and researcher with the Book and Periodical Council’s (BPC) Freedom of Expression Committee. “People need it to learn and grow throughout their lives. Learning and growing are much easier if people are free to read, write and discuss information and ideas.”

In 2003, it was reported that only 52% of Canadians over the age of 16 had literacy scores at or above the “minimum level of literacy required to function well at work and in daily living.” As Jason Openo, Director of Planning and Program Development with the Alberta Library pointed out, this means that nearly half of Canadians had low levels of literacy. “This causes us to ask the question: If individuals do not have the literacy skills necessary to function in the world, how can they be truly ‘free’?” he said.

As Canada dives deeper into the digital age, information is more readily available and accessible, yet threats to freedom of expression remain prevalent. “While the digital world has empowered learners in ways it never has before, there are also threats that didn’t exist before. The Dale Askey case in 2013 was an important moment for Canada and for the library profession,” says Openo.

Dale Askey, a librarian at McMaster University, wrote a blog entry about Edwin Mellen Press (EMP) in 2010, while working at a Kansas university. He made several comments about EMP, including referring to the company as a “dubious publisher.”

However, in 2012 EMP retaliated, filing lawsuits against both the librarian and McMaster University, alleging that Askey’s statements were defamatory and claiming that the university should have forcibly removed the offending blog post.

When news of the lawsuits broke, Martha Reineke, Professor of Religion at the University of Northern Iowa, created a petition that garnered 3,100 signatures in support of Askey’s right to free expression. EMP eventually dropped one of the lawsuits in March, 2013, citing pressure from the campaign.

“It feels like a violation of my freedom of expression, as well as an infringement upon academic freedom, which has a slightly different nature,” Askey said of the lawsuits. “Were he to prevail with his lawsuit against me, it would set a negative precedent for anyone upset with a librarian who expresses a grounded professional opinion. Libel litigation is not a useful forum for academic or professional disagreements. The costs involved create an unbalanced playing field and those without extensive means are, by default, at a major disadvantage.”

Askey’s case demonstrates some of the threats to freedom of expression online, and ultimately, intellectual freedom. “Canada, as a country, needs to make sure it protects librarians who voice their perspective about the quality of information in the information universe,” says Openo of the case.

Canada’s annual Freedom to Read Week is an opportunity to remember the importance of freedom of opinion and expression. From February 23 – March 1, this year’s celebration marks the 30th anniversary of the event, and includes public readings and panel discussions, among other activities.

“The BPC encourages volunteers and activists across Canada to celebrate their freedom to read and demonstrate their opposition to censorship,” says Carter. “People organize debates about free expression, display challenged or censored books, take part in reading marathons, create free-speech boards, write essays about censorship and so on.”

Freedom to Read Week

In the 1970s, the BPC created its Freedom of Expression Committee in response to attempts by some Canadians to have contemporary books they considered “profane” banned from schools and libraries. recent statement regarding the Federal Government Library Consolidation and Closure, the Canadian Library Association expressed their concern about budget cuts to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) and federal government library services.

The statement explains the importance of LAC in continuing to record the history of Canada. “Canadians require access to the cultural and historical records managed by Library and Archives Canada. These include books, journals, photographs, newspapers, personal and corporate archives, government records, paintings, film, and sound recordings. Canadians also expect long-term preservation and management of these information assets to ensure future generations have access to them.”

In 2013, LAC made a deal with that allowed them to make digital copies of millions of documents and photos and charge researchers to use the material. This came as a blow to the library profession as Openo puts it, “…instead of investing in an agency that could facilitate greater access to the cultural history owned by Canada, it was decided to re-privatize these assets and outsource to a company to build an infrastructure we could have, and should have, built for ourselves.”

It may not always be evident how our freedoms are at risk in Canada, but Freedom to Read Week provides an important annual opportunity to reflect on the state of freedom of expression in our country, and remember the importance of standing up for this important right.

More on Freedom to Read Week:

Jackie Marchildon is a freelance journalist currently based in Toronto.