Twelve Rules For Not Being A Total Free Speech Hypocrite
from the yes,-we-mean--you-peterson dept
I have to say that I’ve never received so many earnest and detailed–but super angry–emails as I did after my article earlier this year calling out Jordan Peterson’s obvious hypocrisy for claiming to fight for free speech, while suing a university for “defamation” over the speech of some of its staff members. So many very, very earnest young men, really, really wanted to debate the finer points of how suing over speech could magically lead to more free speech. Again, to be clear: I thought that what Wilfrid Laurier University did in punishing a teaching assistant for showing a video clip of Peterson was completely asinine and the university and its staff deserved all of the ridicule it got.
The lawsuit, however, was another story altogether. Beyond it being a completely obvious SLAPP suit — using defamation to try to silence someone — there were all sorts of weird conflicts of interest (it was filed by the same lawyer representing the teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd, and as some have pointed out, Shepherd and Peterson are clearly in conflict with one another over this, since it was Shepherd who actually “published” the negative comments about Peterson by posting them in a video). But the key point is that it’s blatant hypocrisy to sue someone for criticizing you while basing a large part of your persona on being about freedom of speech. Indeed, much of Peterson’s claim to fame was in loudly protesting a proposed law in Canada that he claimed would be an attack on his own free speech.
Since then, however, Peterson only seems to be doubling and tripling down on his attacks on free speech. A few weeks ago he filed a second lawsuit against Wilfrid Laurier University arguing (I kid you not) that the University’s own defense to his original lawsuit defamed him again because it claimed that he benefited from the press attention around the controversy (rather than harming him, as required to be defamation). This seems even more ridiculous than his original lawsuit. Canada, like the US, has absolute privilege in judicial proceedings, meaning you can’t claim defamation for things said in the course of ongoing litigation. But, apparently Peterson is going to ignore that.
Then, even more recently, the Cut revealed that Peteron threatened to sue Cornell University professor Kate Manne after she criticized his book in an interview with Vox. Specifically, she called his work misogynistic, which is a clear statement of opinion (and done so based on disclosed facts). But, no matter, she still received a threat letter:
In letters to Manne, Cornell, and Vox, Peterson?s lawyer, Howard Levitt, demanded that all three parties ?immediately retract all of Professor Manne?s defamatory statements, have them immediately removed from the internet, and issue an apology in the same forum to Mr. Peterson. Otherwise, our client will take all steps necessary to protect his professional reputation, including but not limited to initiating legal proceedings against all of you for damages.?
As the Cut article makes clear, these threats are utterly bogus, and appear to be attempts to chill speech that criticizes Peterson. Indeed, the Cut notes that this is all even more ironic, given that Manne actually engages pretty thoughtfully with Peterson’s ideas, rather than dismissing them wholesale as many others have. As Peterson claims to be a supporter of the give and take debate of free speech, it’s blatantly hypocritical of him to then threaten to sue people for fairly tame criticism.
In fact, reading the full threat letter that Peterson’s lawyer sent on his behalf, makes it quite clear just how allergic to “open debate” the apparently “free speech” supporting Peterson appears to be. Multiple statements listed as “defamatory” are so obviously statements of opinion that they include phrases indicating that they are opinion:
- “I also think…”
- “I also suspect…”
- “I believe…”
Manne is clearly expressing her opinions on Peterson’s work. She is critical of Peterson’s ideas, but if you truly believe in the “marketplace of ideas” then you’re supposed to be cool with that — not threaten to sue them.
Also, utterly bizarre is that beyond going after Manne, the letter also threatens to sue the institution where she works, Cornell University (disclosure: also my alma mater) claiming that in Canada “liability can be imputed to employers due to damages caused by their employees and/or officers.” To support this claim, the letter points to John Doe v. Bennett, a Canadian case in which the Roman Catholic Church was found liable for sexual abuse by its clergy. To argue this means a university is somehow liable for defamation because one of its staff members criticized Peterson is quite a stretch.
Oh, and remember, that some of Peterson’s rise to fame was his claim to be taking a principled stand against compelled speech by arguing that a Canadian law would have compelled him to use specific pronouns in addressing people that he felt was a violation of his speech rights. He also has a page on his own website complaining about “perhaps unconstitutional” compelled speech by the Law Society of Upper Canada. And yet, in this letter sent on behalf of free speech warrior Jordan Peterson, his lawyer demands some compelled speech from Manne and Vox in the form of “an apology to Mr. Peterson.” So, apparently taking into consideration a misuse of pronouns in investigating hate crimes (which is actually what the bill Peterson was so upset about was really about) is an unconstitutional form of compelled speech… whereas requiring a public apology for someone being mildly critical of your work is perfectly fine?
To me, that seems like evidence of some fairly blatant hypocrisy, not to mention legal thuggery, which will likely create chilling effects, causing others to shy away from stating their opinions on Peterson’s statements. That may or may not be Peterson’s goal, and at least some of his fans seem to think that silencing criticism is pro-free speech because it allows Peterson’s ideas to spread — but that’s not how it works. Threatening lawsuits and claiming defamation over someone criticizing your ideas is the literal opposite of supporting free speech.
Even if you think it’s cool to create chilling effects for someone who doesn’t want Peterson to speak, you simply are not promoting free speech by silencing critics of free speech. That’s not how it works. At all. Any attempt to completely silence people — even if they’re not fans of your free speech — is still an attempt to stamp out free speech and antithetical to free speech. So, given that so many of Peterson’s avid followers seem to like lists, let’s give you a nice list of twelve rules for not being a total free speech hypocrite:
- Speak out when you have an opinion on something.
- Express yourself appropriately when you think someone else is incorrect about something.
- Recognize that not everyone may agree with your take on things. That’s cool.
- There may be consequences to your speech. That’s part of free speech.
- Some of those consequences may involve people calling you nasty names. That’s no fun, but it’s still free speech.
- Those people are not harming your free speech. They are engaging in it.
- Don’t sue or threaten to sue those people for defamation. It makes you look like a hypocritical dipshit.
- Don’t then sue again because of their legal response pushing back on your original defamation lawsuit.
- Don’t then go screaming at people who call you out as a hypocrite for suing people for criticizing you.
- Perhaps try a little introspection and recognize that suing people for criticizing you creates massive chilling effects and is entirely counter to free speech.
- If you’re going to insist that others accept your ideas, maybe recognize that you have to accept others’ ideas, even if you disagree with them.
- Don’t sue a cat when it hisses at you in the street.