FAIR executive director Monica Harris.Athena Lonsdale

An American organization cited by Niagara-on-the-Lake library CEO and chief librarian Cathy Simpson in a controversial column has been mischaracterized, its executive director says.

In an interview with The Lake Report, Monica Harris of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism (FAIR) said it was “distressing” how some members of the community reacted and that the library board had fired Simpson based on what Harris said were “assumptions about FAIR” that labelled it as a group spouting far-right talking points.

“This is not a right-wing organization and it’s offensive to be accused of it,” Harris said, adding FAIR has chapters in Toronto and British Columbia.  

On Feb. 22, as part of Freedom to Read Week, a guest column by Simpson headlined “Censorship and what we are allowed to read” was published in The Lake Report.

After complaints from library staff, a few residents and notably a letter published Feb. 29 from resident Matthew French (“Opinion piece espoused right wing talking points“), the library board fired Simpson last week.

That decision was made without finding out more about her organization, Harris said.

“It seems like they’ve done this without really doing adequate research and due diligence,” Harris said.

 “From my perspective, both FAIR and Ms. Simpson had been wrongly branded with these inflammatory and divisive labels,” Harris said. “She was terminated based on misinformation. It’s so tragic. This shouldn’t be happening in a free society.”

Neither FAIR nor Simpson have said or done anything that could be construed as racist, Harris said.

“No one among us — certainly not FAIR — or Ms. Simpson supports racism or discrimination in any form.”

Libraries are in a tough spot, Harris acknowledged. That being said, they have an obligation to provide access to information that expresses all kinds of viewpoints.

“I can fully appreciate that they have a responsibility — and it’s sacred — to provide access and information to all citizens, including those with perspectives that may be deemed unpopular or offensive,” Harris said. 

“This may make people uncomfortable, we get it. This is the price of living in a free society. I think what gets lost in this discussion is that censorship is never an effective way of combating prejudice.”

Only when people talk to each other can progress be made, she said.

“Throughout history, we’ve seen that whenever there are hate speech laws, hate doesn’t disappear,” she said. “The only thing that makes hate disappear is discourse — open discourse — education and bringing people together in respectful discussions.”

Harris said that as a Black woman and a lesbian, she has been on the receiving end of accusations of both racism and homophobia because of her position with FAIR.

“We’re living in a time where a Black woman can be accused of being racist, which I have been … and a gay woman can be accused of being homophobic. I have been accused of that as well,” she said. 

“It’s all nonsense. It presumes that I don’t understand my interests and I don’t understand what racism is.”

The Lake Report also reached out to the Ontario Library Association for comment but the request was declined.

“We won’t be able to speak to this matter,” said Laurel McLeod, a social media and communications specialist for the organization. 

She referred The Lake Report to the NOTL library to discuss the matter.

In explaining its decision, library board chair Daryl Novak said that while Simpson was entitled to expressing free speech, the newspaper column gave the appearance that her opinion was shared by the board.

“There was never for a split second any issue about Cathy’s rights to free speech as an individual,” he told The Lake Report in the wake of Simpson’s dismissal.

 “However, our rights to free speech get curtailed somewhat when we associate ourselves with an organization.”

As for FAIR, Harris said the group is only trying to honour the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King.

“He dreamed of a world in which everyone was treated equally and that’s all we at FAIR are advocating,” Harris said. 

“We are against discrimination in any form, but somehow, that is seen as enabling systemic racism and is a right-wing talking point.”

By Richard Hutton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Mar 28, 2024 at 08:57

This item reprinted with permission from   The Lake Report   Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
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