If you love free speech, get acquainted with the Lindsay Shepherd case

A great many people – including many strong advocates of free speech – have only a passing acquaintance with the Lindsay Shepherd matter.  This lack of awareness is unfortunate, because nothing more chillingly reveals the way in which universities are violating the free speech principle.

On November 1, 2017, Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate student and teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, presented to her class a clip from a popular Ontario television talk show.  The topic of the clip was gender pronouns, and the format was a panel discussion that included Jordan Peterson as one of the participants.

Jordan Peterson had already become famous (or notorious, depending on your politics) for having publicly stated that he would not abide by a recently established Ontario law called C-16.  This law, in Peterson's view, obliged him and all others to use recently coined pronouns to refer to people who deny their own biological sex.  Peterson saw this law as a form of compelled speech imposed by government, an unacceptable transgression against the principle of free speech.  His perspective on the issue of transgender pronouns contrasted with those of other members of the panel, presumably an intentional effort on the part of the television show to include divergent views.

Nathan Rambukkana, a communications professor at Wilfred Laurier University, was Lindsay Shepherd's adviser and her supervisor for the work she was doing as a teaching assistant.  Shortly after the showing of that clip from the television show, Ms. Shepherd received an email from Professor Rambukkana asking her to attend a meeting that, in addition to the two of them, would include the Masters Program coordinator and the acting director of the Gendered Violence Prevention and Support Program.

When she attended the meeting, Ms. Shepherd was informed that one or more students in her class had complained about the showing of the clip, and the three university officials censured her for having shown it.  One of them claimed she had violated university policy and broken Ontario law by spreading transphobia, one slandered Jordan Peterson (a psychology professor at the infinitely more prestigious University of Toronto) by contending that he was not a credible academic, and the third – Mr. Rambukkana himself – admonished Ms. Shepherd that playing the clip of Peterson was like "neutrally playing a clip of Hitler."

Without their knowing it, Lindsay Shepherd had recorded the meeting (which is legal in Ontario).

After the meeting, Ms. Shepherd went public with her recording.  No evidence ever emerged confirming Rambukkana's contention that one or more students had complained about the content of that Peterson video clip.

On November 17, after widespread public disapproval over the way in which Lindsay Shepherd had been treated, Nathan Rambukkana issued a public letter of apology to her.  On the same day, the president of Wilfred Laurier University also posted a public letter of apology in which she implied – but avoided saying directly – that the university would be taking steps to fortify its commitment to "the abiding principles of freedom of speech and freedom of expression."

In June of 2018, Lindsay Shepherd launched a 3.6-million-dollar lawsuit against the university, evidently based on its continuing failure to honor the principle of free speech so piously expressed in that apology letter from the president.  A few days later, Jordan Peterson initiated a 1.5-million-dollar defamation lawsuit against Laurier in which he contends that Ms. Shepherd's inquisitors slandered him in a format they ought to have realized was likely to go public.  Peterson claims that his lawsuit was filed largely because he believes that Laurier University is continuing to avoid its avowed commitment to fostering free speech.  Put differently, he supports Lindsay Shepherd's contention that Laurier's apology is proving to have been fake.

Just last month, Nathan Rambukkana and Herbert Pimlott (two of the three who interrogated Shepherd over a year ago) filed a lawsuit against Lindsay Shepherd, contending that she is financially responsible for any damage to themselves as a consequence of the Peterson suits.  Their rationale is that she was the person in power because she made the secret recording and chose to make it public.  Rambukkana and Pimlott have been named as personally responsible by the Peterson lawsuit; they evidently fear being held responsible for their own actions.

Anyone who values free speech as a sacred right of the individual ought to be familiar with the details of this matter.  Lindsay Shepherd was institutionally abused by Wilfred Laurier University for doing nothing more than encouraging open discussion of a contentious contemporary issue – a fact that was admitted by the university in its letter of apology.  But since that event over a year ago, Ms. Shepherd has received no institutionally recognized relief for the injustice that she suffered, and no corrective actions have been taken against her three inquisitors.

To feel the full force of academia's paternalistic arrogance and ideological authoritarianism, all one needs to do is listen to the secret recording of Lindsay Shepherd's inquisition.  To know and fear the puritanical righteousness with which progressives impose their own beliefs on others, please read Fay Voshell's indictment of revolutionary zeal.

Image: Tyler Menezes via Flickr.