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A Catch-22 defeated Peter Ridd – but there’s still hope for academic freedom

13 October 2021

12:25 PM

13 October 2021

12:25 PM

Peter Ridd has lost in the High Court, but the judgment has nevertheless set an important precedent in favour of academic freedom.  

Ridd was sacked by James Cook University in 2018 after expressing contrarian views about the science regarding the Great Barrier Reef. He also made a range of other comments about the disciplinary process and broke the confidentiality direction from the university.  

The central issue in the case was the interplay between the academic freedom provision in Ridd’s enterprise bargaining agreement and JCU’s code of conduct.  

JCU claimed that Ridd broke the code of conduct by acting in a way that was not collegiate. His strong criticism of his colleagues’ science was, JCU claimed, not entitled to intellectual freedom protection. But the High Court found that JCU’s submission would mean the intellectual freedom provision would serve “no substantive purpose” because it can be overruled by the code of conduct. The Court rejected this conclusion. 

Instead, the Court accepted Ridd’s alternative submission that the intellectual freedom provision has much fewer limits. “The best interpretation of cl 14 [the intellectual freedom provision], having regard to its text, context, and purpose, is that the intellectual freedom is not qualified by a requirement to afford respect and courtesy in the manner of its exercise,” the judgement concluded.  

Quoting J.S. Mill’s On Liberty the ruling says: 

Whilst a prohibition upon disrespectful and discourteous conduct in intellectual expression might be a “convenient plan for having peace in the intellectual world”, the “price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification, is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind”. 


In this vein, the High Court concluded that Ridd should not have been given a first censure in 2016 for earlier contrarian comments. That’s what kicked off this entire episode.  

Ridd still lost the case. That’s not because of Ridd’s comments about science with respect to the great barrier reef per se, but rather, eighteen other allegations of serious misconduct. These allegations relate to how Ridd responded to JCU.   

Ridd’s legal team did not contest each individual claim by the University, instead accepting they were ‘serious misconduct’ but claiming they were protected by the ‘intellectual freedom’ provision. The Court did not agree that discussing the case and damaging JCU’s reputation, among other commentary about the university, was protected speech because it did not directly relate to Ridd’s academic research.  

In particular, the Court concluded that Ridd should have followed JCU’s confidentiality directions. This is a tad problematic. It would have been impossible for Ridd to raise funds to fight the university if he did not break the confidentiality directions. It’s a Catch-22: go public to oppose a university disciplinary process and you can justifiably get fired. 

Together, this finding leaves academic freedom not entirely destroyed but nor strongly protected. It emerged today that every university in Australia has adopted former chief justice Robert French’s model code on freedom of expression – that followed on from earlier Institute of Public Affairs reviews of university policies. There is also new legislation, partly in response to Ridd’s case, from earlier this year that better protects academic freedom. But Ridd does not have his job back and the overall conclusions of the case could have a chilling effect on academic freedom at universities. 

Ridd has announced will donate his time to the Institute of Public Affairs as a Fellow without salary to work to improve quality assurance in science, making documentary and educational films, and ensuring that no academic speaking out for integrity in science will endure the ordeal that he suffered. 

The IPA has today launched an appeal to raise $300,000 for the Project for Real Science.  Tax deductible donations to support the research of the Project for Real Science led by Dr Peter Ridd can be made at www.ipa.org.au/realscience. 

With academic freedom not entirely secure it may very well be new institutions like this that carry forward intellectual debate. 

Matthew Lesh is an Adjunct Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.  

 

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