The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Toronto School Board Refused to Promote Event with Nobel-Winning Critic of ISIS

A school board official told said "students would not participate in a book-club event scheduled for February with Nadia Murad, a Nobel Prize-winner and activist," because "Ms. Murad’s book, 'The Last Girl: My Story of Captivity, and My Fight Against the Islamic State,' would foster Islamophobia."


The school board had also done the same as to a book club event that featured Marie Heinein, a defense lawyer in a prominent Canadian sexual assault trial. "Tanya Lee, who has organized the book club for about four years, said she … was told the school board's equity department felt the lawyer would send the wrong message." From the Toronto Globe & Mail (Caroline Alphonso):

A Room of Your Own Book Club invites teenage girls, many of whom come from low-income families, to read a text and then discuss it in a virtual space with the author. School principals and teachers promote the events to their students….

Tanya Lee, who has organized the book club for about four years, said she was told in late October by the school board superintendent she deals with that TDSB schools would not promote this month's event with Ms. Henein. Ms. Lee said she was told the school board's equity department felt the lawyer would send the wrong message.

"They told me straight out 'no' because [Ms. Henein] defended Jian Ghomeshi and how do you explain that to little girls," Ms. Lee said.

Ms. Henein, who became nationally prominent when she represented Mr. Ghomeshi, a former CBC broadcaster, at his 2016 sexual-assault trial, wrote Nothing But the Truth: A Memoir….

When asked about this, a school board spokesman stated that "there appears to have been a misunderstanding, as the equity department does not review and approve books for book clubs"; according to the Globe & Mail, the spokesman "said in an e-mail … that both books are being reviewed by board staff, as is standard practice for books being distributed to students in TDSB schools, 'and we hope to be in a position to approve in the near future.'"

It seems to me that public schools (and of course private schools) are generally free to choose which book club invitations to pass along to their students, including based on the viewpoints that the books express. That would be the general view under American First Amendment law (unless the school has deliberately set up a limited public forum in which it has decided to pass along such outside invitations indiscriminately, which few schools are likely to want to do).

The problem is with the school official's particular choices: (1) The decision that talking about ISIS's atrocities is somehow not "equitable, culturally relevant and responsive" because ISIS is an extremist Islamic group, and (2) the judgment that you can't "explain … to little girls" that defendants—including ones accused of sex crimes—are entitled to a lawyer, and are presumed innocent until proven guilty (Ghomeshi wasn't proved guilty, but that's largely beside the point). When a school official makes those choices, something is deeply wrong, and I hope the school board ultimately does reverse that decision.