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Why is Jordan Peterson suing Wilfrid Laurier University?

Why is Jordan Peterson suing Wilfrid Laurier University?
Photo by Gage Skidmore/Flickr

If you’re not a die-hard Jordan Peterson aficionado (or a die-hard Jordan Peterson hater), you may have missed the fact that the celebrity professor is now suing Wilfrid Laurier University, as well as two of the university’s staff members and one now-former staff member. Why is Peterson, a best-selling self-help author with a sold-out international roadshow to his credit, demanding $1.5 million in damages from a school at which he has never studied or been employed? It’s complicated.

The background

There have been many convoluted scandals surrounding Peterson in the two years since his rise to prominence as a viral celebrity. One of the bigger ones wasn’t even caused by him directly; it involved a Wilfrid Laurier graduate student and teaching assistant named Lindsay Shepherd. During a seminar with first-year students in early November 2017, Shepherd showed some clips of Peterson speaking as part of an expert panel during a 2016 episode of TVO’s The Agenda. The show’s topic of discussion was “Gender, Rights and Freedom of Speech.” Peterson was there to talk about his well-known distaste for gender-neutral pronouns, and that’s what he did.

Few people outside Shepherd’s classroom would ever have heard about the video presentation were it not for what happened next: Shepherd was called into a meeting where she was reprimanded by her supervising professor, Nathan Rambukkana; another professor, Herbert Pimlott; and Adria Joel, who was at the time the university’s manager of gendered violence prevention and support (she has since left her job). The ostensible reason for the meeting was that an anonymous student had complained about the lesson. By exposing students to Peterson’s views in an uncritical way, Rambukkana told Shepherd, she had violated the school’s Gendered and Sexual Violence Policy and Canada’s Bill C-16, which protects Canadians against discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Shepherd secretly recorded the meeting, and soon released the recording publicly.

The offence

The Shepherd incident turned her into a minor celebrity among internet “free speech” advocates, who have adopted the term as a kind of rallying cry against what they see as rampant political correctness on university campuses. After an investigation, Wilfrid Laurier determined that there had actually been no student complaint about Shepherd’s lesson. Shepherd extracted apologies from Rambukkana and other school officials, and is now suing the school for $3.6 million.

Peterson’s complaint has to do with the specific things said by Rambukkana, Pimlott and Joel during their closed-doors meeting with Shepherd. In the recording of the meeting, all three make statements about Peterson that could be considered disparaging. Rambukkana accuses Peterson of singling out student protesters for abuse, and at one point compares him to Adolf Hitler. Pimlott questions Peterson’s academic credibility, and Joel equates Peterson’s views on gender-neutral pronouns with transphobia.

Peterson’s position is that even though all of these things were said in a private setting, the fact that they later became public means that they’re actionable under Canadian defamation law. As Peterson’s statement of claim puts it: “Although the individual Defendants did not personally disseminate and broadcast [their statements about Peterson] further, beyond the meeting...they could have reasonably anticipated that, given the nature of their conduct and the position taken by Shepherd at the meeting, that she would inform others of what had occurred and, given the ubiquity of recording devices and the fact that recording meetings is permissible under Canadian law, that she might have tape recorded this disciplinary meeting, as she did, and distributed its contents to others.”

Peterson’s claim points out that a copy of the recording is now available on YouTube, where anyone can find it. (It was posted there by someone unaffiliated with Wilfrid Laurer University, and it has received, to date, fewer than 500 views.) The claim also makes reference to the fact that all of these allegedly defamatory statements were repeated in the media.

Peterson’s lawyer, Howard Levitt, who is also representing Lindsay Shepherd in her lawsuit against the university, spoke with the Toronto Sun about the case. “This isn’t just some internet troll mouthing off in a way that no one pays attention to and doesn’t give any credence to,” he said. “These are professors...making comments that are atrocious about Dr. Peterson who is one of if not Canada’s most prominent intellectual.”

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The latest

None of the four defendants has filed a statement of defence yet, so it’s not yet clear how they intend to fend off Peterson. Wilfrid Laurier University has issued a statement saying that it will “vigorously defend” itself.

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