Freedom from what?

Toronto professor claims free speech is being attacked by recent Bill

by Noé Sainderichin

Freedom from discrimination or freedom of expression — those are the choices arguably under threat that have led to tumult at the University of Toronto, and conversation in universities across the country.

The sometimes heated debates were spurred by a series of YouTube videos created by psychology professor Jordan Peterson, who critiqued the language used in Bill C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act that has recently passed its third and final reading in the House of Commons and which intends to legally define gender-based discrimination. In them, the U of T professor spoke about his refusal to use non-binary pronouns — words others than “he” and “she” — and criticized “political correctness.”

Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould, a Liberal MP, introduced the bill, that will add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. These have been defined respectively by Wilson-Raybould as “a person’s internal or individual experience of their gender,” and “an external or outward presentation of gender.”

Peterson believes Bill C-16’s language is overly vague and has a potential for abuse. He sees it as ideologically motivated by a fringe of the radical leftist movement, and called it an obstacle to free speech. He has since continued to be vocal on the issue, both on his Twitter account and in multiple appearances in TV broadcasts.

“I don’t believe that it’s intelligent and appropriate for the government to mandate the words that its citizens should speak,” he told the Toronto Star.
“It’s one thing to tell people that there’s certain words they can’t say, but it’s an entirely different thing to tell them there are words that they have to say.”

Peterson criticized the fact that gender identity and gender expression are now legally defined -they were already present in the Ontario Human Rights Code, but the Bill would grant them federal reach. Because of this, he claims that his lectures “might be illegal.” In which case the university would have to sanction his actions, as it would bear the responsibility for what its employees do or say.

“They’ve become facts that you question at your legal peril,” he said.

Peterson was harshly criticised by some of his university colleagues, students staged rallies in protest and he received a letter from David Cameron, the university’s Dean of Arts and Science, who stated that Peterson’s discourse was “unacceptable, emotionally disturbing and painful.”

In his first Youtube lecture, Peterson describes his position: “If you prevent people from talking [with others] you prevent them from thinking, if they can’t talk because it’s illegal, no one will ever correct them, they won’t get to modify their viewpoints.”

However, on TV Ontario’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin, transgender studies professor Nicholas Matte accused Peterson of hate speech and abusing students by refusing to use certain pronouns, arguing it was a question of basic human dignity and respect. “We shouldn’t even be talking about free speech, but rather the social issues facing people who are being discriminated against,” he said.

Peterson, who has not backed down from his position, was then invited by the university to participate in debate on free speech and gender expression on Nov. 19. He faced lawyer Brenda Cossman, Director of Sexual Diversity Studies at the university, and Dr. Mary Bryson, a professor in language and literacy at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice.

During the debate, Bryson referred to Peterson’s arguments as hate propaganda. Cossman stated that the legal text of Bill C-16 was in no way a threat to free speech, as it did not cover misuse of pronouns. However, she writes, “It is entirely appropriate for gender identity and expression to be added to the list of identifiable groups. Hate speech directed at trans and gender non binary individuals should be treated the same as hate speech on the basis of race, religion, sexual orientation.”

Peterson, on the other hand, cited rules followed by the Social Justice Tribunals that oversee the enforcement of these laws. He said he believed these are “essentially extrajudicial bodies (…), they can search your house without warrant, use secret hearings, have no rules of evidence and the judges are unaccountable.”