Today, Jordan Peterson announced on his Youtube channel that he is suing Wilfrid Laurier University for defamatory statements.
His lawsuit cites the now-infamous recording by grad student Lindsay Shepherd, in which she was institutionally chastised for playing an episode of The Agenda with Steve Paikin which featured Jordan Peterson arguing against the use of gendered pronouns.
Dr. Peterson claims that the faculty involved untruthfully painted him as a proponent and figure of the alt-right, that he promoted white supremacy and transphobia (even going so far as naming him and Hitler in the same breath).
Defamation lawsuits are never a tidy business.
Canada has a history of nasty and expensive court trials testing the limits and scope of its defamation laws. While they might be necessary to prevent vicious and unlawful attacks on character and reputation, they have also been used as a means to suppress the truth and stifle a free press.
Take the case of Dr. Ranjit Chandra for example. After being found guilty of fabricating research done in the 1980’s on a patented baby formula, Dr. Chandra used the threat of defamation lawsuits to attempt to suppress the truth about his fraudulent activities.
In 2006, the CBC aired an exposé documentary titled “The Secret Life of Dr. Chandra” on the entire affair, and the disgraced doctor took the organization to court over supposedly libellous claims.
This case would eventually reach the Ontario Superior Court and would cost the CBC over one million in legal fees, which Chandra was then ordered to reimburse after the ruling came out against him.
While Dr. Peterson’s suit may have grounds, this will be an especially tricky legal argument on both sides. The defense will have to prove without a doubt that the claims made against Dr. Peterson are in fact true.
What makes this even more interesting is the fact that over the years, Jordan Peterson has come to be a towering figure among the free speech crowd, and for some free speech absolutists a slander lawsuit leaves a bad taste of hypocrisy in the mouth.
However this plays out, this legal battle will inevitably test the uncertain line between free speech and defamation laws.
In other recent news, U.K. Islamic reformer Maajid Nawaz and his organization, the Quilliam Foundation, threatened the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) with a lawsuit over their categorization of Quilliam as an “anti-Muslim extremist” group. SPLC settled with Mr. Nawaz and his foundation for 3.3 million and issued an apology admitting it erred in the categorization.
The SPLC has fallen in recent hot water regarding the tactics it uses labeling “hate groups” which are seen as unethical and ideologically motivated.
Both Maajid Nawaz’s settlement and now Dr. Peterson’s defamation lawsuit are setting a precedent for retaliatory justice against the labelling tactic commonly associated with the so-called Left. Whether this is a worthy precedent or one that will quickly get out of hand is yet to be seen as sixty other organizations named on the SPLC network are also entertaining legal avenues against the group.
This is the problem that self-appointed moral authorities like the SPLC will always fall into: that their accusations are untruthful and are actually doing more harm than good. Although citing the authority of academics, activists and journalists in their work, their moral compass might not be calibrated to always point North.
Closer to home, the Canada Anti-Hate Network, a group which models itself after the SPLC and has received a grant from it’s US partner, wishes to impose the same hate monitoring within our borders.
The Canada Anti-Hate Network, headed by Canadian Jewish Congress’ Bernie Farber and its executive director, journalist Evan Balgord, wishes to seek fifty thousand in donations (five thousand of which has been fundraised) to start up such an endeavour.
While rightly claiming that there is a problem of right-wing extremist groups brewing in the underbelly of Canada, the question is, how effective groups like SPLC or the Anti-Hate Network are in curbing them, and whether these matters should be left up to the law.
These organizations, while seeking to do good, have no oversight and are internally ideologically homogenous, choosing to overlook hate on their own side of the political spectrum, often focusing on conservative or right-wing opponents. Ultimately, these questions lead to the final arbitrator, the rule of law.
Jordan Peterson’s lawsuit will further test the blurry line on which free speech becomes defamation of character. However in this instance, the tables might have turned and ironically, it will be the accused that might have to argue for freedom of expression, or rather, the freedom of censorship as expression.