Like Jordan Peterson, these medical professionals won't be silenced
Free Speech in Medicine conference will examine an array of issues, from COVID to developments in the transgender movement
Plenty of ink — including his own lengthy manifesto in these pages — has been spilled over the unanimous decision by an Ontario Divisional Court to dismiss Jordan Peterson’s appeal against the Ontario College of Psychologists’ order, based on anonymous complaints from persons unknown to Peterson, that he submit to social media training for an undetermined duration at his own expense, or risk losing his licence to practice.
The decision linked the acerbic tone of Peterson’s personal beliefs and opinions, as expressed on Twitter, to hypothetical harms, ruling that “demeaning, degrading and unprofessional” discourse constitutes justification for limitations on Peterson’s Charter speech protection. Peterson’s response to the “activist” judgment was swift and unequivocal. He condemned it for the ripple effect it will have on all medical professionals, vowing to put “every resource at my disposal” to fight it. Peterson has already instructed his lawyers to file an appeal.
As Peterson acknowledged, his privileged position — a high public profile and the financial independence to take his opponents to the legal mat — are simply not available to other dissenters in their various medical fields, many of whom have incurred professional setbacks for the exact same reason as Peterson. Most struggle to find mainstream outlets to defend their rights and opinions.
A few take the bold step of creating their own platforms. Particularly impressive in this regard is a dynamic Nova Scotia-based married couple, Chris Milburn and Julie Curwin. Chris is a family medicine doctor specializing in emergency care in Sydney; Julie, a former elite long-distance triathlete and an award-winning fiction writer, is a psychiatrist. They share a mutually passionate interest in politics and philosophy.
In 2019, as head of ER for Eastern Nova Scotia, Chris wrote a controversial op-ed for the Halifax Chronicle Herald, in which he questioned the wisdom of a policy that criminals, however intoxicated and violent, must be “medically cleared” in ER before incarceration. From his direct observation, their anti-social behaviour puts an undue burden of risk on both police and medical personnel.
His message resonated with readers (a million-plus hits) as a topic worth public discussion, but provoked a complaint to the College of Physicians & Surgeons of Nova Scotia (CPSNS) by a group of 14 activists, academics and doctors, led by a Halifax lawyer (none of them previously known to Milburn). Eventually, he was cleared of wrongdoing and allowed to keep his licence, with the warning that he should be more “sensitive” in future communications.
Milburn recognized this intervention, and the further request that he “explain” his thinking regarding some private social media posts having nothing to do with health care, as a form of Orwellian “professionalism creep” — micromanagement of members’ thoughts — that rang alarm bells for him. As he put it metaphorically in an interview, professional regulatory bodies used to put up a sign, “Don’t walk on the grass,” meaning all other surfaces were beyond their remit. Now it’s “Watch where you walk,” meaning one’s entire environment is seeded with landmines.
His experience did not have the intended chastening effect. Rather it galvanized Milburn and Curwin into the creation both of a substack-cum-podcast, Pairodocs, and a non-profit, Free Speech in Medicine, which held its first conference, in Baddeck, N.S., in October 2022.
That conference’s driving issue was a postmortem of COVID, during which dissenting views of certain well-accredited medical professionals and scientists had been marginalized or suppressed. The keynote speaker was Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, Stanford University professor of Medicine, and co-author in 2020 of the Great Barrington Declaration, which advocated letting the virus spread in lower-risk groups with the aim of herd immunity, alongside “focused protection” of those most at risk. The GBD is widely considered to have “shattered the notion that there was a scientific consensus in favor of lockdowns.”
Notably absent from the conference, however, was any member of a medical regulatory body. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Nova Scotia had been invited to send a representative in order to clarify what it saw as the bounds of free speech for doctors, the legal structure that allows these restrictions, and what lines it believed merited censure for crossing. But it declined, as did Public Health Nova Scotia, which had been invited to outline the scientific justification and decision-making process behind public health policy during COVID.
Additionally, Dalhousie University (where Milburn has assistant professor status) and even his union, Doctors Nova Scotia, refused to post information about the conference on their sites, normally a routine courtesy, citing a misalignment of “values.” Even the local CBC station, usually eager to report any noteworthy event held in Cape Breton, took a pass. And so Milburn and Curwin had to rely on “freedom communities” — and former CBC journalist Trish Wood, a conference speaker — to get the word out. This latter-day “samizdat” nevertheless drew over a 100 attendees — variously health professionals, academics, teachers, small business owners and other lay people.
This year, the topics for the conference, which runs Oct. 27-29, are more diffuse: an update on COVID policy and the rise of the biomedical state, but also developments in the transgender movement and parents’ rights in education, the limits to harm reduction strategies for substance abuse, the DEI-training-related circumstances surrounding the suicide of Toronto principal Richard Bilkszto, and scrutiny of the legal boundaries regarding regulatory colleges’ control over free speech.
A featured speaker will be Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, former psychiatry professor and director of medical ethics at the University of California at Irvine, who was removed from office for his stance on mandatory vaccination. He (along with Dr. Battacharya and others) is a plaintiff in Missouri v. Biden, an important free-speech case with implications for all Americans, and arguably Canadians, too.
Do check out the whole speaker roster of courageous and dynamic free-speech warriors on the Free Speech in Medicine site. If the good Lord is willing, and the creek don’t rise, your faithful columnist will be there, too.