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The Scottish Poetry Library’s statement raises more questions than it answers

Scottish PEN’s statement on the recent statement made by the Scottish Poetry Library

March 3, 2020

Here is a statement from the Scottish PEN trustees on behalf of the organisation in relation to the recent statement made by the Scottish Poetry Library.

In February 2020, the Scottish Poetry Library (SPL) issued a statement outlining its opposition to: “bullying and calls for no-platforming of writers in events programmes and in publishing.” Further to this, the library director, Asif Khan, when speaking to The National confirmed that “there are processes, but it may include a temporary suspension of engagement with the library” for those who contribute criticism of issues, policies, writers and institutions online, in a manner that is called participating in “pile-ons”. While protecting the mental and physical health of all writers is of paramount importance, the statement and comments to the press raise significant issues around freedom of expression, equality of access and the transparency of Scottish art institutions.

Under the Equality Act 2010, every institution has a responsibility to its staff, users and broader community, to take into account the protected characteristics of race, gender reassignment, sex, age, sexual orientation, religion or belief, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity and disability. To best realise this responsibility, it is vital that all institutions are governed by and work to principles and processes that are open to public scrutiny and are informed by careful and full engagement with the diverse community they support. Unfortunately, the statement by the SPL fails to address equality issues, particularly in relation to bullying, non-platforming and preventing “pile-ons”. The statement offers no definitions or criteria to support identification of when these behaviours have reached a threshold to warrant punitive action by the library. Without clarity, accessible definitions, transparency and broad engagement with all stakeholders, questions remain as to how free expression can be protected for all who engage with the library. It is important that there is always a space for responsible and legitimate criticism. Addressing this would not weaken the library’s commitment to tackling these issues, instead it would demonstrate a commitment to ensuring the principles and policies adopted by the institution are equally distributed across the community, without bias or prejudice.

Further to this, no method of redress or appeal has been identified, offering no way for users to challenge the decisions made by the library. Free expression is complex and any policy that ignores such complexity can stifle the free expression of a range of stakeholders, most notably members of marginalised communities. We are disappointed that the library, prior to the launch of this statement, failed to reach out to partners, stakeholders and the broader community to help build this policy in a manner that responds to different points of view, defends legitimate criticism and protects everyone seeking to speak out through poetry.

The development of the Scottish Poetry Library is deeply entwined with the evolution of Scottish PEN. Former Scottish PEN president, Tessa Ransford, founded the library in 1984 and since then, we have been honoured to work with the library on a number of campaigns and events. It is a vital part of the Scottish writing community and we hope it will continue to be a welcoming and warm place for all poets in Scotland.