Author and free-speech advocate Jordan Peterson is suing Wilfrid Laurier University over comments made about him by three staff members in a meeting held to discipline Lindsay Shepherd, a teaching assistant who showed her class a clip of Mr. Peterson talking about gender pronouns.
During the meeting, the three staff members repeatedly and maliciously defamed the author and University of Toronto psychology professor, the $1.5-million suit alleges, detailing multiple negative comments.
Mr. Peterson targeted transgender students, said Nathan Rambukkana, Ms. Shepherd’s teaching supervisor. Showing students comments he has made is like “playing … a speech by Hitler,” Mr. Rambukkana also said. Herbert Pimlott, another professor present at the meeting, questioned Mr. Peterson’s academic credentials, saying he “does not have the substantial academic evidence to be a credible person,” the suit says.
Ms. Shepherd secretly recorded the meeting and released it to the media, leading to national criticism of the university’s actions against her. It has since been posted or linked online on multiple sites.
The three staff members should have known that could happen, the suit says.
“These defamatory statements were malicious and designed specifically to damage [Mr. Peterson’s] personal and professional character as a Professor, author, lecturer and public intellectual,” the suit says.
None of the allegations outlined in the suit has been proved in court and those named in the suit have yet to file their statement of defence.
The university said it would “vigorously defend” itself. “Laurier remains committed to intellectual inquiry, critical reflection, scholarly integrity, academic freedom and freedom of expression while striving to be a supportive and inclusive community,” the Waterloo, Ont., school said in a statement.
Several experts in defamation law, however, said the university could argue that any comments made in the meeting are protected by “qualified privilege.”
“The law wants to give people the ability to speak freely without fear of a libel lawsuit in certain situations,” Toronto defamation lawyer Gil Zvulony said.
Disciplinary meetings could be one such situation if the people in the meeting are fulfilling their duty, according to defamation and media lawyer Peter Jacobsen, who also represents The Globe and Mail.
“It will be of importance to determine whether there was a complaint [from a student] to determine whether or not these professors were indeed fulfilling their duty in bringing her into that meeting,” Mr. Jacobsen said.
The university initially said the meeting had been held in response to a student complaint about the showing of the video clip from the public affairs show The Agenda. But an investigation by the university later found no such complaint had been made and blamed mistakes and overreach for the episode. Mr. Rambukkana and the university have issued apologies to Ms. Shepherd.
Last week, Ms. Shepherd filed her own $3.6-million suit against WLU, claiming that the university’s actions have destroyed her chances of employment in academia. Lawyer Howard Levitt is representing both Ms. Shepherd and Mr. Peterson.
In a YouTube video, Mr. Peterson says he was inspired to launch the lawsuit by Ms. Shepherd’s action.
“I’m hoping that the combination of lawsuits will be enough to convince careless university professors and administrators blinded by their own ideology to be much more circumspect in their actions and their words,” he says in the video. He did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.
Hundreds of articles from media outlets around the world have questioned Mr. Peterson’s ideas, his responsibility for his followers’ ideas and actions, and his expertise in politics rather than psychology. He first gained public attention by arguing that legislation aimed at ending discrimination against transgender people, such as Bill C-16, forces people to use gender-neutral pronouns and restricts freedom of speech.
The staff members in the meeting could argue they were expressing an opinion, and that they were not doing so maliciously, Mr. Zvulony said.
“Saying he’s like Hitler is an opinion. Nobody believes he is the incarnation of Hitler,” he said.
The suit seeks $500,000 for defamation, $500,000 for injurious falsehood and $500,000 in punitive damages.