The Peterson case reveals a larger problem within regulatory colleges: Are they custodians of public welfare or self-serving institutions?
Jordan Peterson’s recent legal skirmish with his professional regulator, the College of Psychologists of Ontario, is more than just a headline-grabbing story; it reveals a deeper conflict between professionals and their regulatory bodies. The key question here is whether regulators truly prioritize public well-being or if their primary interest is self-preservation.
Last spring, the College investigated several complaints about Peterson’s tweets on politics, social issues, and transgenderism. Interestingly, the complaints originated not from Peterson’s clients but concerned citizens. In November, the College concluded that Peterson’s tweets “pose moderate risks to the public” and were “degrading to the profession.”
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For Peterson to keep his clinical license, the College mandated that Peterson hire a coach, at his own expense, to school him in the etiquette of professional tweeting. Peterson fought this decision in court, arguing that the College had no jurisdiction over his private political commentary. Despite this, last week, a three-judge panel in the Ontario Divisional Court ruled in favour of the College.
This case brings into focus broader questions about free speech, Charter rights, and the role of professional regulation. Surely, the College saw these issues coming, yet it still chose to pursue Peterson.
While it’s easy to chalk this up to ignorance or even malice, it’s crucial to scrutinize the driving force behind many of these regulatory decisions: self-preservation. According to the College’s decision, which was quoted in last week’s court ruling, Peterson risked “public trust in the profession of psychology, and trust in the College’s ability to regulate the profession in the public interest.”
The fulcrum of this case is not patient safety but the College’s concern about public perception. Notably, no active clients were part of this controversy; the College’s apprehension stemmed purely from comments Peterson made on a podcast and Twitter. The only entity truly at risk here is the College itself, not the public it claims to protect.
In Ontario, 26 regulatory colleges oversee 29 health professions, and each reports to the Minister of Health, per the Regulated Health Professions Act, first introduced under Bob Rae’s New Democratic Party in the 1990s. Similar to other public entities like hospitals and schools, these regulatory colleges must maintain a good rapport with government agencies to sustain their operations.
This puts colleges in a bind. They say they have a “duty to protect the public, making sure healthcare professionals are safe, ethical and competent.” But colleges cannot stay in business without government support.
Regulatory colleges collect membership fees (dues) from its members. For example, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario collects $1,725 each year from the province’s 31,500 practicing physicians, in addition to a long list of other fees. The College of Psychologists has half as many psychologists and lower membership fees, but it’s still a multi-million-dollar organization filled with well-paid employees.
Regulatory colleges face a classic dilemma often discussed by economists as the “principal-agent problem.” Conflicts of interest arise when the agent (the colleges in this case) starts to act in their own best interests instead of acting in the interests of their clients. They are in the uncomfortable position of serving two masters. If college employees want to keep their jobs and protect their organizations, they must maintain a public image of pure devotion to patient safety, even though they are beholden to governmental oversight.
The Ontario court chose to ignore this fundamental conflict of interest, focusing solely on the College’s right to restrict Peterson’s speech outside of his professional responsibilities. (Presumably, the court is not immune to the principal-agent problem either.) This narrow perspective sidesteps an important institutional issue: regulatory colleges may say they serve the public, but they are clearly inclined to safeguard their own interests first.
In fairness, some of Peterson’s social media comments are cutting. Screenshots pasted into mainstream media create an effect much like locker-room banter at a dinner party. Right or wrong, speech codes differ by audience and location. Regulators shouldn’t have a right to control it all.
The Peterson case is a revealing snapshot of a larger problem within regulatory bodies. It’s time we ask whether these organizations are genuinely custodians of public welfare or if they are primarily self-serving institutions masked under the guise of public protection.
Dr. Shawn Whatley served as the past President of the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) and has wide-ranging knowledge and experience in the field of healthcare policy. He is also the author of the highly-praised book on how to fix emergency wait times in Canada, No More Lethal Waits.
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