Pavey Law Logo
microphone in a cage, indicating censorship

Can The Law Silence Jordan Peterson?

You’ve probably heard of Jordan Peterson at some point over the past few years. Once a Toronto-based clinical psychologist and professor, Peterson shot to fame over the past few years both as a published author with books such as 12 Rules for Life, and as a font of controversy.

Peterson’s profile heightened in 2016 when he spoke out against changes to the Canadian Human Rights Act that made gender identity and gender expression protected grounds of discrimination. Since then, he’s become a popular speaker on social and cultural issues, often espousing a conservative viewpoint against transgender rights and other liberties both in traditional media and on social media.

As a private citizen, Peterson may be allowed to speak freely. However, despite closing his private practice he remains a licensed psychologist and is governed by the College of Psychologists of Ontario (the “College”). In a recent Ontario Superior Court decision, the Divisional Court spelled out exactly what that relationship means. 

Can the law silence Jordan Peterson?

The Facts

In Peterson v. College of Psychologists of Ontario, 2023 ONSC 4685, Peterson had been a registered member of the College since 1999, although he stopped seeing patients in 2017 as his profile rose. Nevertheless, he continued to brand himself as a clinical psychologist in his public profile, even as his controversy rose and the College began to receive numerous complaints about his public statements. 

In the first half of 2022, the College received multiple complaints about Peterson which called into question whether he was abiding by the Colleges Standards of Professional Conduct (the “Standards”). Without repeating, these included statements about overpopulation, transgender and non-binary people, and a plus-size cover model. 

The College launched an investigation, and the results were provided to Peterson in June, 2022, roughly around the same time that his Twitter account was suspended for violating Twitter’s policy. The College’s investigative panel ultimately determined that while some statements were passable as jokes, others were unprofessional. The Panel recognized that while Peterson had the ‘right to freedom of expression,’ there were significant ‘impact risks’ that may cause broad harm. 

The College’s panel recommended that Peterson undergo coaching through a professional selected by them. Peterson rejected this proposal, saying that he had already implemented  a solution and he has a team of experts working to measure his statements, including his editorial team at Penguin Random House publishing. 

The College replied that such advisers would not remediate his risk and stated in a letter that while Peterson had freedoms, he also “owes a duty to the public and to the profession to conduct himself in a way that is consistent with professional standards and ethics.” He was asked to sign an undertaking, which he refused to do. 

The Inquiries, Complaints, and Reports Committee (‘ICRC’) issued a subsequent decision of November, 2022 noting that they were ‘very concerned’ about Peterson’s high ‘recurrence risk’ of making statements ‘inconsistent with the professional standards, policies, and ethics,’ and ordered Peterson into a coaching program at his expense or be deemed to have potentially committed ‘professional misconduct.’ Peterson refused to comply and brought his case before the Divisional Court for review. 

The Decision

The Court was left to determine whether the decision regarding Peterson’s comments and order into coaching was reasonable. For that, they used two previous Supreme Court tests: one from a case named Doréto determine whether the right to freedom of expression was appropriately balanced, and from a case called Vavilov that the decision met the legal standard of “justification, transparency and intelligibility.” 

The Doré case examined whether the decision was reasonable in balancing “the severity of the interference of the Charter protection with the statutory objectives,” and the case notes that the decision-maker is entitled to deference as long as their decision falls within a range of ‘reasonable outcomes.’ 

For the first analysis, the Court had looked at previous cases involving the censure of teachers who had expressed discriminatory views, or nurses disciplined by their colleagues for taking a public stand against masks and vaccines. Ultimately the Court found that the College could have done nothing, sent the matter to discipline, or struck the appropriate middle ground which was to refer Peterson based on a ‘specified continuing education or remedial program’ (‘SCERP’). 

On the second analysis, the Court concluded that the ICRC’s reasons were transparent, intelligible, justifiable, and reasonable. It considered various factors such as the history of Peterson, the comments themselves, and Peterson’s subsequent engagement with the ICRC and his refusal to participate in any coaching. The decision was made in the public interest given the ‘moderate harm’ of risk to the public and the high risk of recurrence.

The Court dismissed Peterson’s appeal, and he was ordered to pay $25,000 in costs.

Final Thoughts

Freedom of speech is not entirely free in Canada, at least not as it is in the United States. Here, there are limits placed on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in order to prevent the harm and endangerment of others. In the case of a role like Peterson’s, as a medical professional who requires public confidence and trust, the Court’s determined that risk of harm is not insignificant. 

In short, Peterson as an individual may have had a far greater runway to hold contrarian views no matter who was offended by them, provided he was not physically harming or threatening others. However, as a licensed professional who self-identified as one, he was subject to a different set of rules and a different threshold of behaviour as laid out by his College.

Our litigation team has handled professional discipline cases before. Just because a professional college says something, it does not automatically mean that they’re in the right! Professionals can sometimes need lawyers to make sure that their voice is adequately heard. If you’re in that same boat, contact our office today to set up a consultation.