Academic Freedom on Trial: Peter Ridd v James Cook University (2021)

Peter Ridd was sacked by James Cook University in May 2018 for findings of serious misconduct stemming from criticism of powerful scientific institutions and the quality of scientific research relating to the Great Barrier Reef. 

On 22 July 2020 the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia allowed an appeal brought forward by James Cook University against a decision from a lower court which had found the university’s decision to terminate Peter Ridd’s employment unlawful. 

The Full Court’s decision vindicated the authoritarian tactics of censorious university administrators who would prefer to see a culture of consensus prevail rather than a culture of open debate. 

The authoritarian tactics included a series of disciplinary proceedings, censures, email searches, and gag orders by way of dubious confidentiality directions—including an instruction not to disclose information about disciplinary proceedings against him to his own wife.

In a strict legal sense the courts have been required to make a determination about the meaning in law of the term “academic freedom” in an employment contract, specifically the right to academic freedom that Ridd was contractually entitled to under the James Cook University Enterprise Agreement 2013-2016 (Enterprise Agreement), and whether the right to intellectual freedom was limited by the JCU Code of Conduct as argued by JCU.

The Enterprise Agreement

Ridd’s employment with JCU was governed by the Enterprise Agreement, which included the following clauses: 

Clause 13.3: “the Code of Conduct is not intended to detract from Clause 14, Intellectual Freedom.”

Clause 14.1-14.2: Imposes an obligation on JCU to act in a manner consistent with the protection and promotion of intellectual freedom within the university, including the right of staff to

Clause 14.3: “All staff have the right to express unpopular or controversial views. However, this comes with a responsibility to respect the rights of others and they do not have the right to harass, vilify, bully or intimidate those who disagree with their views. These rights are linked to the responsibilities of staff to support JCU as a place of independent learning and thought where ideas may be put forward and opinion expressed freely.”

At no time has it been asserted that Ridd engaged in vilification, harassing, bullying, or intimidation with anyone he disagrees with.

Confidentiality

On numerous occasions JCU directed Ridd to maintain confidentiality about the potentially unlawful disciplinary proceedings that he was subject to. It is likely that there was no basis under the Code of Conduct or the JCU Enterprise Agreement for making such strident confidentiality directions.

The argument that the confidentiality obligations would be designed to protect the university are an extraordinary claim. Not allowing a person subject to the process to talk about the process publicly—which amounts to a secret trial—is the opposite of natural justice and procedural fairness. It is almost certain the provision is intended to protect the party subject to the process – that the university is under an obligation to protect confidentiality (for instance, under Cl 54.1.5(c) a person can give consent to JCU to release any information it collects or records, suggesting that since the university collecting or recording information, it has a responsibility to maintain confidentiality).

Timeline of key events

DateEvent
16 Dec 2015Dr Ridd sent an email to a Courier Times journalist, suggesting that scientific research promoted by JCU stakeholder institutions (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the ARC Centre) were unreliable.
17 Dec 2015Journalist forwarded Dr Ridd’s email to Prof. Terry Hughes, the head of ARC Centre. Prof Hughes forwarded the email to JCU’s Senior Deputy Vice Chancellor Prof. Chris Cocklin.
29 Apr 2016JCU issued Dr Ridd with the First formal censure, finding he had breached the Code of Conduct and engaged in misconduct by failing to act in a “collegial way” and failed to “uphold the integrity and good reputation of the university”. JCU directed Dr Ridd to make public comment only “in a collegial manner that upholds the University”. 
1 Aug 2017Ridd was interviewed on Sky News where he said among other things that “I think that most of the scientists who are pushing out this stuff, they genuinely believe that there are problems with the reef. I just don’t think that they are very objective about the science they do. I think they’re emotionally attached to their subject”, and “you can no longer trust this stuff”.
24 Aug 2017JCU wrote to Ridd alleging that it considered the Sky interview to constitute a prima facie case of serious misconduct. JCU directed Ridd to maintain confidentiality in respect of the disciplinary process against him.
27 Aug 2017Ridd sought clarification about the confidentiality direction (including in relation to whether he could speak to his wife about it). JCU asserted that Ridd ‘should not discuss any aspect of the serious misconduct process whilst it is ongoing—except with an appropriate representation’ and ‘you are expected to maintain your confidentiality obligations to [JCU]’.
Aug-Sept 2017Ridd corresponded with various students and colleagues in relation to the action JCU had taken against him.
19 Sept 2017JCU wrote to Ridd explaining that JCU was of the view that there was a prima facie case of misconduct in relation to the Sky News interview, and made further directions to maintain confidentiality (but now saying Ridd could talk with his family and certain others).
In or around October 2017JCU conduct a search of the email account used by Ridd in the course of his employment to determine whether there was evidence of any other breaches of the Code of Conduct.
23 Oct 2017JCU wrote to Ridd alleging that he had denigrated his colleagues and failed to maintain confidentiality in a number of emails he had written to various people. 
20 Nov 2017Ridd launched proceedings against JCU, alleging that JCU contravened the enterprise agreement and thereby contravened section 50 of the Fair Work Act 2009.
21 Nov 2017JCU issued Ridd with a final censure. It made seven findings that Ridd had breached the code of conduct. JCU directed Ridd to refrain from criticism that was not “collegial” or in the “academic spirit of the search for knowledge, understanding and truth”, to keep matter relating to the disciplinary process and censure confidential, and not to “many any comment or engage in any conduct that directly or indirectly trivializes, satirizes or parodies the University taking disciplinary action against you”.
22 Nov 2017The Australian published an article (“the 22 November article”) detailing Ridd’s application to the Federal Circuit Court against JCU. Ridd subsequently published documents relating to the disciplinary process on a WordPress website, and he also set up a GoFundMe fundraising campaign.
23 Nov 2017Ridd sent a copy of the 22 Nov 2017 article to a student with the subject line “for your amusement”.
28 Nov 2017Ridd corresponded with the Dean, Prof Marcus Lane, including in relation to Ridd’s compliance with the Code of Conduct.
8 Feb 2018JCU wrote to Ridd claiming that it had concerns about breaches of the confidentiality directions. It gave further directions to maintain confidentiality.
13 Apr 2018JCU determined that nine further allegations of breaching confidentiality directions, directions, and the Code of Conduct had been substantiated It found that he breached the Code in relation to comments online; disclosure of documents, correspondence with a student; his email to Professor Lane and preferring the interests of the IPA over JCU’s, all amounting to serious misconduct.
2 May 2018Ridd’s employment with JCU was terminated. 
16 Apr 2019Federal Circuit Court found that all findings against, directions to, and termination of Ridd were unlawful.
6 Sept 2019Federal Circuit Court declared JCU was in breach of section 50 of the Fair Work Act 2009 and ordered JCU to pay Ridd $1,094,214.47 as compensation and $125,000 by way of pecuniary penalty.
13 Sept 2019JCU filed notice of appeal, which was subsequently amended on 11 October 2019 and 28 July 2020.
22 Jul 2020Full Court of the Federal Court allowed JCU’s appeal, set aside the orders of the Federal Circuit Court and dismissed Ridd’s appeal.
18 Aug 2020Ridd filed an application for special leave to appeal from part of the Full Court’s judgment in the High Court.
11 Feb 2021The High Court granted special leave to appeal.
23 Feb 2021Ridd filed notice of appeal in the High Court.
23 Jun 2021Ridd v James Cook University is heard in the High Court.

Key Articles and Further Reading

Peter Ridd’s reply to JCU’s Submission
27 May 2021

James Cook University’s submission to the High Court
13 May 2021

Peter Ridd’s submission to the High Court
15 April 2021

Only Universities Think the World Hasn’t Changed
by John Roskam, 12 March 2021

High Court to Decide on Peter Ridd Free Speech Case
by Gideon Rozner, 11 February 2021

Measuring Old Corals & Coral Reefs (Part 1)
by Jennifer Marohasy, 30 November 2020

Galileo Wins Court Case
by Matthew Lesh, 26 April 2019

Peter Ridd Has Defeated the Climate Inquisition Thanks to You
by Jennifer Marohasy, 17 April 2019

What Would a Physicist Know About The Great Barrier Reef
by Jennifer Marohasy, 28 March 2019

Fake Photographs at Heart of Peter Ridd’s Sacking
by Jennifer Marohasy, 25 March 2019

Denying the Littoral Zone at the Great Barrier Reef
by Jennifer Marohasy, 20 April 2019

The Eerie Ancient Coral Reef at Bowen, with a Crocodile
by Jennifer Marohasy, 22 April 2019

Smashed by Debbie – Middle Island Corals
by Jennifer Marohasy, 24 April 2019

IPA Welcomes Free Speech Review, Time for Universities To Act
by Matthew Lesh, 9 April 2019

Free Speech in Decline: IPA Free Speech on Campus Audit 2018
by Matthew Lesh, 10 December 2018

Australia’s Galileo Moment
by Matthew Lesh, 23 May 2018

The Extraordinary Resilience of Great Barrier Reef Corals, And Problems With Policy Science
by Peter Ridd, 2 February 2018

Ocean Acidification: Not Yet a Catastrophe for the Great Barrier Reef
by Jennifer Marohasy and John Abbot, 20 February 2018

For further information see also:

ipa.org.au/greatbarrierreef and climatechangethefacts.org.au 

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