Academic Groupthink: Is Nick Coatsworth The New Peter Ridd?

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13 October 2021
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Never has it been so important for Australian universities to be places of free intellectual inquiry than it is right now.

But it is the most pressing issue of our times – namely how governments respond to COVID-19 and climate change—that are the topics which are most susceptible to suppression and censorship on university campuses.

The reality in Australian academia now is that staff codes of conduct are powerful weapons against open debate and freedom of speech.

A judgment from the High Court scheduled to be handed down this morning will determine how far the reach of these codes can go.

That case concerns public criticisms beginning in 2015 by Peter Ridd, formerly a physics professor at the James Cook University, of the research produced by his colleagues. Specifically, Ridd challenged the dominant narrative about how climate change was killing the Great Barrier Reef by criticising the reliability of research supposedly showing reef deterioration.

Ridd’s comments should have comfortably fit within the definition of his right to academic freedom. At the time, the explicit protection in clause 14 of the JCU enterprise agreement for staff to exercise “intellectual freedom” was accompanied by another provision stating that the university’s code of conduct “was not intended to detract from” the same right.

For continuing to voice his opinion on an important area of public policy Ridd’s employment at the university was terminated by JCU in May 2018. The university found that in breaching the code of code of conduct by failing to act in a collegial manner or uphold the reputation of the university, Ridd’s actions amounted to serious misconduct.

Ridd’s fight in the courts since then was initially successful in the Federal Circuit Court which found JCU’s censures, gag orders and dismissal of Ridd were a violation of the former professor’s contractual right to intellectual freedom.

The Full Court of the Federal Court effectively eviscerated this intellectual freedom by ruling in favour of JCU. An appeal by Ridd to the High Court was heard in June this year and a final decision is expected to be handed down soon.

The actions of JCU against Ridd and its vindication by the Federal Court revealed to the public something that had been swept under the rug—that Australian universities would no longer respect their historic role to be a place of free intellectual inquiry.

In place of academic freedom were regimes of suppression bolstered by complaints made by colleagues under restrictive codes of conduct that are themselves drafted by and administered by the censorious university officials.

If JCU succeeds in its case against Peter Ridd then it will establish a precedent for universities to cancel academics for speaking against the illiberal orthodoxies held to be true in our centres of higher learning.

The Australian Financial Review’s Michael Roddan revealed on October 1 that an organised campaign had been launched against the former federal deputy chief medical officer and present associate professor at the Australian National University Nick Coatsworth.

In early August, 24 clinical academics signed a joint complaint to the ANU as well as the Royal Australasian College of Physicians for commentary by Coatsworth in an opinion article in May which was critical of “activist doctors” as well as the “false idol” of the “covid-zero” strategy being pursued by Australian governments.

Like Ridd, Coatsworth should be protected by his employment contract. The ANU enterprise agreement states the university “supports and uphold the concept and practice of academic freedom in accordance with the University Code of Conduct.” The Code of Conduct in turn states it is “not intended to inhibit academic freedom.”

In more sensible times a public health expert engaging in public debate about public health hysteria would not be a matter of public interest or concern. However, the ANU’s Dean of the College of Health and Medicine, Russell Gruen, has already signalled Coatsworth’s commentary could be considered discourteous by other experts and potentially a breach of the code of conduct.

It is perhaps putting it lightly to say that academic freedom is in trouble in Australia which the federal government has to its credit recognised. The passage of the Higher Education Support (Freedom of Speech) Amendment Act 2021 in March this year is a welcome development.

But while it is important to clarify the place of freedom of speech in the legislation, even clear language protecting freedom can too easily be sidestepped, as the enterprise agreements at JCU and potentially ANU show.

The subjective language of the codes of conduct – whether “collegiality” in the case of Ridd or “discourteous” in the case of Coatsworth – gives immense scope to university administrators ringfence debate where it could be perceived as a criticism of the ascendant experts dominating public policy.

Australia needs its university sector to be genuine places of higher learning and intellectual inquiry by making a commitment to protect freedom of speech, rather than continuing to cater to the whims of group-think enforcers.

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