Free Speech in Civil Society graphic

Canadian professor threatens to sue online critic for libel – June 2018

Toronto, Canada // Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania

Jordan Peterson, a Canadian professor who has stirred controversy online for his stances on political correctness and feminism, threatened to sue an American professor for her criticisms online, which were factually unverifiable and which Peterson called “defamatory.” As Peterson demanded, the American professor deleted the statements and issued an apology, calming the legal threats.

Key Players

Jordan Peterson is an academic figure noteworthy for, among other things, his stance on free speech. A psychology professor at the University of Toronto, Peterson has gained traction online for his critiques of “political correctness,” the idea of white privilege, and feminism.

“The masculine spirit is under assault,” he said in an interview with the New York Times.

These beliefs have often won him favor among conservative audiences, including alt-right circles. In September 2017, for example, white nationalist leader Richard Spencer retweeted Peterson’s notorious lecture on his belief that women have an unconscious desire to be dominated.

Peterson has also gained relative fame and fortune through his public brand. His January 2018 book, “12 Rules for Life,” had sold more than 1.1 million copies by May 2018, according to the Times. And, thanks to his popular Youtube channel, which boasts 1.3 subscribers as of August 2018, Peterson receives more than $80,000 monthly in donations.

Peterson is currently involved in a defamation case against Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, over comments made by three of its staff members. The staff in question reprimanded a teacher’s assistant (TA) for playing a video of Peterson discussing his controversial views on the use of gender pronouns for transgender individuals. They told the TA, during a subsequent meeting, that Peterson’s stance targeted transgender students and compared the video to showing “a speech by Hitler,” according to the Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper. One professor present questioned Peterson’s intellectual credibility, saying he lacked “substantial academic evidence.”

But, unbeknownst to the supervisors, the TA had been recording their discussion  and would soon release the audio to the media, resulting in widespread university criticism and Peterson’s litigious response. The suit, which seeks $1.5 million in damages, according to the Globe and Mail, claims that the three university staff members who made the critical comments about Peterson were maliciously defaming him.

In August 2018, the university filed a statement in court, claiming that Peterson knew about and consented to the release of the tape; the statement also asserts that Peterson has experienced “significantly increased financial and professional success” since the release of the recording, according to The Sault Star, an Ontario daily.

Wendy Lynne Lee is a philosophy professor at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. Lee, who leans left, is also a staunch free speech advocate who once defended the use of flag-burning as a form of protest in a post on her blog, according to Mic.

Further Details

On May 31, Lee tweeted sharp criticism of Peterson to her roughly 300 followers.

“Jordan Peterson: incel misogynist. Committed white nationalist,” Lee wrote, referring to “his [descent] into rank bigotry.”

“Incels.” short for “involuntary celibates,” are members of a growing, self-identified online community.  Incel ideology revolves around a hatred of women, who incels believe owe them sex but ignore them because of women’s shallowness. The online movement gained national attention in April 2018, when Alex Minassian killed 10 and injured 15 in a van attack in Toronto, a seemingly motiveless crime until investigators discovered that he had self-identified as an incel.  According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Minassian has since become, in the wake of these attacks, an incel movement icon.

But Lee’s claims that Peterson is an incel and white nationalist are dubious. As the married father of two children, Peterson cannot accurately be defined as an incel, as Mic points out. Peterson has also publicly denounced identity politics, according to Mic, meaning that he would not affiliate with identity-driven movements such as white nationalism.

On June 13, Peterson’s attorney sent an email to Lee, threatening to sue her for libel unless she deleted her “defamatory statements” and tweeted an apology, per documents provided to Mic.

Outcome

Lee deletes tweet, apologizes

That same day, Lee, in order to avoid legal action, complied with Peterson’s requests by  deleting the tweet and issuing an apology on Twitter, which read as follows:

“AS PER THREAT TO SUE FOR LIBEL, I HEREBY APOLOGIZE TO JORDAN PETERSON FOR REFERRING TO HIM AS AN INVOLUNTARY CELIBATE (INCEL), A MISOGYNIST,  A COMMITTED WHITE NATIONALIST, AND SOMEONE WHO HAS DESCENDED INTO RANK BIGOTRY,” she tweeted.

Lee later expressed her dismay at the request, but said she feared legal action.

“I find it absurd,” Lee told Mic. “Many have actually said these things about Peterson and at much greater length.”

Peterson’s lawyer said that, had Lee not complied, he would have filed the lawsuit in Canadian court, where proving libel charges requires lower standards than in the United States.

The attorney noted that, while Peterson would not sue all of his online critics, “anyone calling Dr. Peterson that is at risk of being sued for defamation,” according to Mic.

External References

“I laugh at the death of normies”: How incels are celebrating the Toronto mass killing, Southern Poverty Law Center

Inside the online world of ‘incels,’ the dark corner of the Internet linked to the Toronto suspect, Washington Post

Jordan Peterson, Custodian of the Patriarchy, New York Times

Jordan Peterson sues Wilfrid Laurier University for defamation, The Globe and Mail

Free speech champion Jordan Peterson threatens to sue professor over Twitter name calling, Mic

Jordan Peterson profited by releasing audiotape he alleged defamed him: Defence, The Sault Star

Prepared by Maya Gandhi ’20

Originally Uploaded August 20, 2018

Updated September 11, 2018