James Cook U wins against Peter Ridd in High Court

Dr Ridd loses his appeal against the university dismissing him

What this is about: Dr Ridd was sacked by James Cook U in 2018 for actions following his criticising research at the university on the state of the Great Barrier Reef.  The university said he had breached its code of conduct in the way he criticised colleagues. Dr Ridd replied that his comments were protected by the intellectual freedom clause (14) of the enterprise agreement then in place at JCU. He sued and won in the Federal Court, before a full bench overturned that decision. Dr Ridd then appealed to the High Court which has found against him.

However, this is not a definitive defeat for the rights of academics to speak out on areas of expertise.

What it means for academic freedom: The High Court found the university was within its rights to sack Dr Ridd because some of his actions, subsequent to his initial criticisms, were in breach of the university’s code of conduct. But the court did recognise the protective power of the enterprise agreement. “The best interpretation of cl 14, 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. That interpretation aligns with the long-standing core meaning of intellectual freedom. 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”, the court, quoting John Stuart Mill states.

It concludes the university’s original censure of Dr Ridd, in 2016, “was not justified.”

What could happen now: Enterprise bargaining is variously underway or imminent at universities across the country, which provides an excellent opportunity for union and university negotiators to strengthen and expand codified protections for academics to comment – academics’ “areas of expertise” could include the way universities are run.