Monday, July 02, 2018

Jordan Peterson's Lawsuits


Since my original post about Jordan Peterson discrediting himself as a champion of the right to free speech I have gotten a response from more than one person that I would paraphrase like this: Peterson is suing the two professors at Wilfred Laurier University and threatening to sue the one at Bloomsburg University for libel because the former said he is “analogous to Adolf Hitler” and the latter said that he is a “white nationalist” and a “misogynist.” If libel law is not incompatible with free speech then what he is doing is not inconsistent with it.

This is like saying: if a 12-gauge shotgun is not incompatible with free speech, then my pointing one at you and threatening to shoot if you say one more word in defense of Donald Trump is not inconsistent with it.

A lawsuit is an attempt to use government coercion against someone. A threat of one is a threat to coerce. What feature of libel law makes it possible to think this is consistent with free speech? I would put it like this: Libel law does not prohibit points of view or ideas, however bad they might be. The tort of libel consists, roughly, in maliciously harming someone by damaging their reputation by making false statements about them. Moreover, the harm has to be something that is in some way measurable in money, since the whole point of a libel suit is to get compensation for the harm that the plaintiff has suffered.

In all the public pronouncements Peterson has made defending his lawsuit threats and explaining their motives, I have not seen him say one single thing about how these professors have harmed him. What he has said is things like this: “So I think this is a warning, let’s say, to other careless administrators and professors who allow their ideological presuppositions to get the best of them to be a bit more careful with what they say and do.” In other words, he wants to intimidate people with bad ideologies to avoid being led by them into saying objectionable things. This is not the point of libel law. It is, however, the point of typical censorship regulations.

There is an obvious reason why he does not talk about the harms he has suffered. Notice that the professors he is threatening or attempting to coerce teach at Wilfred Laurier University and Bloomsburg University. I was employed as university faculty continuously from 1974 until I retired in 2016, and I never heard of either of these institutions until this case. On the other hand, Peterson is a tenured professor at The University of Toronto – one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Beyond that, he is probably the most prominent professor in the English speaking world right now, at least as far as the mass media are concerned. Every week, hundreds of people (for reasons that I do not pretend to understand) give him thousands of dollars by contributing to his web site.

The idea that comments that one group of these professors made about him in a closed meeting and the other in an obviously intemperate twitter message can damage his professional reputation and cause him damage is patently absurd. However, unsophisticated people who do not understand the law very well can easily be intimidated into silence by threats of a lawsuit from someone who, like Peterson, has vast financial resources, even if the lawsuit is in fact frivolous and groundless and would violate their rights if successful. To deliberately intimidate people into silence by threatening coercion that would violate their rights is itself a violation of their rights: their rights to speak freely.

Jordan Peterson is the biggest kid in the schoolyard, and he is picking on little kids who have no way to harm him, but who do seem to be able to make him very very angry. He is simply a bully, and like any bully he is violating the rights of others: in this case, rights to freedom of speech.
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