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Several hundred students attend a rally protesting the views of U of T professor Jordan Peterson, who refuses to use non binary pronouns.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The claims made by University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson on the impact of anti-discrimination legislation are scientifically and legally wrong, a debate at the Toronto university heard on Saturday.

The debate was organized by the university following weeks of controversy on campus over Dr. Peterson's refusal to use non-gender-specific pronouns when addressing students. Over a series of YouTube videos and on social media, Dr. Peterson has argued that human rights legislation which bans discrimination on the basis of gender identity or gender expression is a form of political correctness.

If he refuses to call a transsexual student by 'they' or another gender-neutral pronoun, he could be prosecuted under provincial human rights laws or under Bill C-16, Dr. Peterson has claimed. The federal bill passed the House of Commons this week and is headed to the Senate.

"Rather than focus on academic freedom, I want to focus on the total dereliction of academic responsibility not to disseminate misinformation," said Mary Bryson, an education professor at the University of British Columbia.

Dr. Bryson was one of three panelists at the event, which also included Brenda Cossman, a law professor at the university and director of the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, moderator Mayo Moran, Trinity College provost and Dr. Peterson.

On Saturday morning, Dr. Peterson opened the debate in speech that covered gender differences, the U.S. election and the controversy his remarks have caused.

"My career was put at risk," he said. "You know what you call people you can't talk to? Enemies."

Professor Cossman repeatedly argued that Dr. Peterson has overstated the sanctions he could face as a result of his remarks.

"There is nothing in Bill C-16 that criminalizes the misuse of pronouns," she said. Language is already the subject of legislation, from bilingual labelling to swearing an Oath to the Queen, to hate speech, she added.

"The Supreme Court has developed a balance between free speech rights on one hand and reasonable limits on the other," she said.

Campus security were posted at entrances to the building in which the debate took place, but there were no protests or disruption during the 100-minute discussion.

"There was deep disagreement about some issues, so there seemed to be some merit to having an academic discussion … where the issues could be unpacked and assessed," said David Cameron, the Dean of Arts and Science at U of T.

Critics of Dr. Peterson have claimed that his remarks have unleashed a torrent of threats on social media against transgender students. Supporters insist that the professor's opinions are a welcome defence of free speech.

Some groups boycotted the discussion. The queer caucus of CUPE 3902, the union representing teaching assistants and sessional instructors, refused to attend the event. "Human rights are not up for debate," it said in a statement.

Trans students held a Trans Day of Celebration, part of Trans Awareness Week, and opposed the event as providing Dr. Peterson with "a platform to express his transphobic opinions."

Dr. Peterson came under intense criticism for what Dr. Bryson and Professor Cossman said was his lack of knowledge of gender and trans studies or the laws he is criticizing.

"The rhetorical strategies have more in common with Breitbart News than a university professor," Dr. Bryson said, referring to the American news site.

Gender identity does not depend on sex, Dr. Bryson said, pointing to research on that subject. It "exists on a continuum that cannot be explained by sex assigned at birth. Gender identity and expression are dynamic, biosocial aspects of human diversity," she said.

While the university has said the debate was a one-time event, Dr. Peterson challenged Dr. Bryson to further discussions. He is as familiar with research on gender as she is, he added.

Applause was often louder for the psychology professor than for his counterparts, although his opinions were sometimes met with scattered laughing.

"Women here should know – your interests are different than those of men," he said at one point.

Facts were needed in the discussion, Professor Cossman said in an interview before the debate.

"I am involved because I believe there have been some profound misunderstandings circulating about the law," she said.

"The Oxford English dictionary has announced its word of the year as post-truth," she said. "I worry that a lot of the ideas about pronouns is located in that idea of post-truth."

Dr. Peterson is not teaching any classes until the winter term. Senior university administrators have repeatedly asked him, in meetings and letters, to cease making remarks that could discriminate against students.

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