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Monday, April 15, 2024
Opinion: FAIR responds to claims that led to firing of library’s CEO
Monica Harris, Monica Harris, FAIR executive director. SUPPLIED

Monica Harris
Special to The Lake Report

As the executive director of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism, I am compelled to address several misrepresentations and falsehoods that were presented to the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library board before it terminated CEO Cathy Simpson over a Feb. 22 opinion piece published in The Lake Report.

Not only are some of the claims damaging to FAIR’s reputation, but also, and more importantly, because Simpson has suffered immense financial and professional harm based on this misinformation.

FAIR, a U.S.-based non-profit, has challenged diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs at public institutions, however, it is important to understand the context and basis for those challenges.

The organization’s mission and founding principle are embodied in the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., whose quote about being “judged by the content of our character, not the colour of our skin” is proudly quoted on our homepage.

We oppose diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives only to the extent that they violate Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination against any citizen on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex and national origin.

FAIR has successfully defended the rights of individuals aggrieved by discriminatory DEI policies and advocates for diversity practices that are legal and authentic, rather than illegal and divisive.

Vilifying FAIR for its efforts to end discrimination of any kind is subversive of the universal equality that King and other civil rights leaders tirelessly fought to secure.

Contrary to what letter writer Matthew French and others have alleged, FAIR embraces inclusion in its purest form and believes unfettered freedom of speech is critical to this effort.

FAIR stands against censorship of any kind and advocates respectful disagreement because we believe bad ideas are best confronted with good ideas — and never with deplatforming or blacklisting.

Ultimately, the best way to promote tolerance is through education and open discourse.

To this end, the goal of FAIR’s library program is to assist librarians in their efforts to include the widest possible range of perspectives in curating their collections.

FAIR is also accused of being a “key voice amplifying anti-LGBTQ+ pseudoscience” and those supporting Simpson’s dismissal cited Wikipedia as evidence for this assertion.

However, a closer read of this Wikipedia entry reveals that it has been flagged since 2023 because “the neutrality of (the) article is disputed.”

It’s disingenuous for those seeking inclusivity to demand that the perspective of others be excluded, or their employment terminated, based on arguably biased and unverified information.

To be perfectly clear, FAIR respects and embraces the rights of people of colour and members of the LGBTQ community. I, myself, am a gay Black woman.

Moreover, Nadine Strossen, past national president of the American Civil Liberties Union and lifelong advocate for free speech and the rights of marginalized groups, is a member of FAIR’s board of advisers. How likely (or logical) is it that I would assume a leadership role, or that Strossen would accept an advisory role, in an organization that is racist, transphobic or homophobic?

French argued, “We should not be presenting ‘heterodox viewpoints’ on settled science or human rights, even if some political groups would prefer it. Climate change is real. Evolution is real. Racism is bad. Gay people are not bad. We should not pay for books that promote Holocaust denial.”

However, FAIR does not deny the reality of climate change, the science of evolution or the Holocaust. We agree that discrimination is bad.

The implication that our support of heterodox views is synonymous with a rejection of settled science, bigotry or genocide is therefore unfair and patently false.

Simpson’s critics accuse her of wanting books to be removed to make space for those promoting FAIR’s “far right-wing agenda.” Once again, they misrepresent FAIR and Simpson’s efforts to advance the organization’s mission.

While FAIR appreciates public libraries do not have unlimited shelf space or dollars to spend and must exercise discretion in their purchases, this does not justify the exclusion of certain books, or denigration of those who support them, based on ideological fear or unfounded accusations.

FAIR also agrees that it would be inappropriate for any library CEO to publicly pressure colleagues to compromise their professional judgment. Similarly, it is improper to fire Simpson based on public denouncement of her professional judgment.

Lastly, and most importantly, the contention that certain views are unworthy of representation in a library misunderstands the responsibility of public institutions.

Libraries have a sacred duty to provide access to all citizens, including those whose perspectives are deemed offensive or heterodox. It’s dishonest to advocate for human rights while denying citizens the most fundamental of rights in a free society: intellectual freedom.

The inconvenient truth is that issues of discrimination, diversity, inclusion and equity are far more complicated and textured than we are often led to believe.

Ironically, the failure to appreciate these nuances has prompted well-meaning people to resort to the dangerous and inflammatory mischaracterizations employed by the propagandists they condemn, ultimately fomenting the polarizing culture war we all lament.

FAIR believes it is vital to promote viewpoint diversity in library collections while respecting a wide range of perspectives. Rather than succumb to divisive rhetoric and baseless accusations against those whose opinions are deemed offensive or unpopular, I hope in future the NOTL Public Library will strive to foster inclusivity and uphold its duty to protect intellectual freedom.

Monical Harris is executive director of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism. This is an abridged version of an opinion piece published March 22 in the National Post following The Lake Report’s story on the firing of Cathy Simpson.

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