Peter Ridd says he has “lost the battle but will continue the war” after the High Court found James Cook University (JCU) was justified in sacking the physicist despite the fact he was entitled to make the criticisms of climate research that led to his dismissal. But Education Minister Alan Tudge said the outcome, bringing to an end a 5 year legal battle, was concerning and he had requested “further advice about the implications” of the matter. “There are few things more important for the advancement of truth and knowledge than having open, robust debate at our universities,” Mr Tudge said. “We need a culture in our universities of welcoming open robust debate, even if some feel offended in the process. I am concerned that, in some places, there is a culture of closing down perceived ’unwelcome thoughts’ rather than debating them,” he said.

The unanimous decision upheld the former professor’s “intellectual freedom” to question the quality of research on the Great Barrier Reef in terms that were deemed by JCU to have breached its code of conduct for academic staff. But in dismissing his appeal, the High Court judges found Dr Ridd’s firing was justified on 18 grounds that did not impinge on his prerogative to break with the scientific consensus on climate change, attack fellow academics and take issue with the impact of warming on the reef. Dr Ridd said: “We’ve lost the battle but this is not the end. A loss is more likely to get government action on the academic freedom of speech battle. You will note that in the judgment the justices actually supported my right to be able to say some of the things about science which the university censured me for.”

The High Court found that the intellectual freedom Dr Ridd had sought under the workplace enterprise agreement covering his employment was not a general freedom of speech, and he was bound by the university’s code of conduct. While he was not required to exercise intellectual freedom respectfully or courteously, as stipulated in the code,  Dr Ridd had to follow university rules when dissenting from JCU decisions and maintain confidentiality. The decision ends a saga that began when Dr Ridd, 60, then head of physics at JCU’s home campus in Townsville, attacked the work on climate-related coral loss of leading reef scientists and the trustworthiness of research centres such as the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

He was sacked in 2018 after being censured for breaching JCU code of conduct requirements that he air criticism of colleagues or the university in a collegial and respectful manner, but then won $1.2m in damages against the university in the Federal Court. This was in turn overturned on appeal by the Full Court of the Federal Court, a decision Dr Ridd challenged in the High Court.  Ridd says Commonwealth government “intervention” is the “only way” to ensure the free speech of academics is protected. In a complex decision, the panel headed by Chief Justice Susan Kiefel found that neither the position of the primary trial judge nor the Full Court could be entirely accepted. With both sides conducting the case on an “all-or-nothing basis”, Dr Ridd had failed to prove that none of the university’s actions against him was justified.

Dr Ridd said: “I am not going to argue whether the High Court is right or wrong, but what I would say is that everything I said should have been OK, and the fact that it wasn’t means there was a problem with the JCU work contract, and we have got to make sure that other work contracts in Australian universities allow for freedom of expression.” In a statement, JCU said the case was about employment law, turning on wording of the superseded 2013 enterprise agreement. “James Cook University at all times has made it clear that it strongly supports the pursuit of intellectual enquiry and the freedom of staff to engage in academic and intellectual freedom,” a spokesman said. Former JCU Professor Peter Ridd lost his job for “speaking out against the zeitgeist,” according to Sky News host Chris Kenny.

Constitutional law expert George Williams backed Dr Ridd’s call for more action by the federal government. “In its decision I think there is a very strong affirmation by the High Court of intellectual freedom, with clear recognition of the value and importance of that freedom” Professor Williams said. “They also recognised that academics within their field of expertise can exercise this freedom in disrespectful and discourteous ways. I welcome that decision and see it as a strong affirmation of that value.” Professor Ridd confirmed that the Institute of Public Affairs, a conservative think tank, had tipped in $8000 to fund his $1.8m bill. $300,000 had come out of his own pocket with the remaining $1.5m raised by GoFundMe drives that attracted 10,000 individual contributions.

Asked whether the expense was worth the result, he said: “I often wonder whether if I knew what was going to happen, would I have made those fateful comments. I hope I would, because this is a battle that had to be had and, in retrospect, lost. “It demonstrates the huge problem we have with universities and I really am quite confident that the government will act more to do something about this.” Professor Williams, of UNSW, recommended the “clear cut-through” of legislation to enshrine freedom of speech for academics and the community, along the lines of anti-discrimination and sexual privacy laws. Dr Ridd said while his academic career was over, he would continue to perform unpaid work with the IPA and other organisations to promote freedom of speech and academic freedom.

Source: Compiled by APN from media reports