Court hearing today over Ottawa Public Library’s censorship of documentary film

The Justice Centre is appearing before the Ontario Superior Court (Divisional Court) today to argue a court application against the Ottawa Public Library on behalf of Madeline Weld and Valerie Thomas. Ms. Weld and Ms. Thomas are challenging the Library’s last-minute decision to cancel a private viewing of a documentary film that was initially approved by Library staff.

For a fee, the Library rents the use of its various rooms for private events to benefit the community. On October 25, 2017, Ms. Weld submitted a request to book the largest room, the auditorium, to privately show the documentary “Killing Europe” on November 25, 2017. The documentary discusses social, political, and cultural changes in Europe. It includes footage of the film’s producer, Michael Hansen, interviewing various people to solicit their views and describe their experiences. Mr. Hansen was scheduled to give a presentation following the viewing of the film and to take questions from the audience, a rare opportunity for those interested in or opposed to the content in the film.

On October 27, 2017 the Ottawa Public Library informed Ms. Weld that her booking request had been “reviewed and confirmed” by library staff. Ms. Weld paid the required fee on the same day and the Library provided her with a copy of the rental contract.

On November 14, Ms. Weld received a telephone call from Catherine Seaman, Senior Manager at the Ottawa Public Library, who inquired as to whether Ms. Weld would adhere to the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Criminal Code. Ms. Weld responded that the viewing of the documentary would not violate either code. During the same telephone call, Ms. Seaman stated that the Ottawa Public Library was “anticipating disruptions” and would therefore require Ms. Weld to pay for security, to which she agreed.

On November 24, Ottawa Public Library Chief Executive Officer Danielle McDonald emailed Ms. Weld stating that, “[a]s a result of a number of complaints that have been raised, Library staff have undertaken a further review of the presentation entitled, Killing Europe, which you have proposed to screen at the Ottawa Public Library’s Main branch tomorrow.” Ms. McDonald further stated that “it is my view that the content falls within the category of material that the Library is not prepared to have displayed or screened on its property. As a result, I must advise that the Library is immediately cancelling the booking in question.”

Ms. Weld and Ms. Thomas are seeking, among other things, a declaration that the Library’s decision unjustifiably violates freedom of expression as protected by section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including the right to see and listen.

“Public libraries, as public entities, cannot simply cancel a film screening because it does not support or agree with the views expressed in the film. Like all government entities, they must uphold the Charter and be content-neutral in their delivery of services,” explained Justice Centre president John Carpay.