Wilfrid Laurier University is asking the court to dismiss a lawsuit against it from Jordan Peterson, saying the free-speech advocate filed it in an attempt to limit debate on matters of public interest, such as gender identity.
“There is inescapable irony in the fact that Peterson, who has come to prominence through vehement advocacy of free speech principles, is bringing a claim for the stated purpose of causing academics and administrators to be more circumspect in their words,” Laurier’s defence reads.
Mr. Peterson had alleged the university defamed him in comments made in a meeting with a student in which they cast doubt on his academic credentials and compared showing students his comments on gender-neutral pronouns with “playing ... a speech by Hitler." Laurier argues that because it did not record and distribute those comments, it is not at fault for the consequences of them becoming public.
The legal battle began after the university held a disciplinary meeting for teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd, who showed her class a clip of Mr. Peterson debating Bill C-16, the law that adds gender identity and expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. Ms. Shepherd secretly recorded the meeting, which was posted online, leading to national backlash against the university. Laurier has since apologized.
Mr. Peterson and Ms. Shepherd both filed suits in June against Laurier and the professors in the disciplinary meeting: Nathan Rambukkana, Herbert Pimlott and Adria Joel. Mr. Peterson alleged that he was defamed; Ms. Shepherd claimed the university ruined her future in academia. None of the claims have been proven in court.
The statement of defence claims that because the Laurier professors had no idea Ms. Shepherd would record and distribute audio of the meeting, they cannot be held responsible for the effects of their comments becoming public.
Anyway, the university argues, Mr. Peterson has “suffered no or insignificant harm” as a result of the incident.
Mr. Peterson called this notion “preposterous.”
“There’s been a large number of attacks on me for being associated with the alt-right," he said, “and a fair bit of that stemmed from what happened at Wilfrid Laurier.”
Howard Levitt, who is representing Mr. Peterson and Ms. Shepherd, said the professors should have assumed their comments might be recorded and made public.
“Everybody has recording devices at all times,” he said. “That’s a realistic risk in 2018.”
In a public statement, the university highlighted that Mr. Peterson admitted to filing the suit in order to make academics more careful about what they say about him, which Laurier said is a “means of unduly limiting expression on matters of public interest, including gender identity.”
“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,” Mr. Peterson said in a YouTube video after he filed the suit.
Laurier argues that this is grounds for dismissal under the Courts of Justice Act section 137.1, which in part seeks “to discourage the use of litigation as a means of unduly limiting expression on matters of public interest.”
“Notably, Peterson did not state that he was launching the claim against the defendants to recover damages for reputational harm,” Laurier’s defence reads.
Mr. Peterson said he meant that he hoped the suit would dissuade further “closed-door inquisitions based on falsehood," not debate in general.
Laurier declined to comment further on the case.