Peter Ridd’s stand for academic freedom in the High Court on Wednesday should be remembered as a uniquely heroic moment in this nation’s history.
For more than five years Ridd has been engaged in a fight against the well-heeled James Cook University, his former employer, which censured and dismissed him from his post as a physics professor in 2018 for exercising his contractual right to engage in intellectual freedom.
Ridd, in challenging the quality of science being produced about the Great Barrier Reef, threatened to embarrass powerful scientific institutions that had already determined the narrative about the death of the reef.
At this modern corporatist university, mediocre administrators have elevated the reputation of the university above things such as the scientific method, open debate and the pursuit of knowledge and truth.
Because of this Ridd was investigated, found guilty of serious misconduct, told to keep the disciplinary proceedings against him secret, and ultimately sacked by JCU in May 2018.
Ridd has been in litigation since even before he was sacked, in protest against the use of the university’s code of conduct to silence him repeatedly. A hearing in the Federal Circuit Court in 2018 went in Ridd’s favour, but this decision was overturned by the Full Court of the Federal Court in 2019.
On Wednesday the dispute finally reached the High Court in front of five of the country’s most senior justices. Oral arguments were presented by Stuart Wood QC, representing Ridd, and Bret Walker SC representing JCU. The five judges were Chief Justice Susan Kiefel and justices Michelle Gordon, Stephen Gageler, Patrick Keane and James Edelman.
Based on the day of hearing, it is clear the High Court recognised the importance of this case and its consequences. Wood adeptly pointed out how JCU’s code of conduct — which Ridd was bound by during his employment — with its vague requirements to act collegiately and uphold the reputation of the university, effectively eviscerated the right to academic freedom.
The justices focused their questions primarily on the construction and interpretation of clause 14 of the JCU enterprise agreement, which was in force at the time Ridd was first disciplined. Importantly, clause 14 recognised and protected the right of staff to exercise “intellectual freedom”.
Moreover, clause 13.3 recognised that the code of conduct “is not intended to detract from clause 14”.
Walker’s submission for JCU argued that the requirements in the code of conduct did not conflict with the intellectual freedom rights in the enterprise agreement. Notably, Walker persisted with the argument that conceptions of intellectual freedom that went back centuries and spoke to the purpose of the university itself were “highly unreliable” and sought to make the case that the code of conduct actually facilitated free expression by setting limits on free expression.
Physicist and Author Peter Ridd says just about every area of the Great Barrier Reef – according to the statistics – “has completely recovered” since the 2016 bleaching event and is in “no danger”. “The area which was hit by the 2016 bleaching has completely recovered; every area except one has got above average coral cover, some at near-record levels… so actually the statistics make it look wonderful,” he said. “Our untrustworthy science institutions have now given the Chinese the ammunition to beat us with. We need audits of our own scientists so we can’t be crucified with our own work. “If climate change is going to affect the Great Barrier Reef, it’s going to affect all the reefs of the world, but they’re only picking on Australia because they don’t like our climate policy – it’s just a political stunt that has been fuelled by our own untrustworthy science institutions.”
Tellingly, when asked about the possibility of a “chilling effect” of the code of conduct, Walker responded: “One person’s chilling effect may be another person’s reasonable restraint.”
While questioning turned mostly on the interpretation of a contractual clause, the chilling effect of university codes is what this whole dispute is about. This is why Ridd’s challenge has elicited such broad support from across the political and philosophical spectrum.
Joining rural Queensland MPs such as Bob Katter and George Christensen as supporters are more centrist figures such as University of NSW deputy vice-chancellor George Williams, University of Melbourne law professor Adrienne Stone, Griffith University law professor Carolyn Evans, who have highlighted why JCU actions were out of line.
But it was Ridd who put it all on the line and took the fight to the High Court. He has done more than anyone anywhere in the country to reveal the oppressive culture of censorship and enforced groupthink that has taken hold at Australian universities.
For every Ridd who is prepared to stand their ground and assert their right as a member of academe to engage in free intellectual inquiry and the pursuit of truth, countless academics have taken the knee to university administrators and silenced themselves.
This is why Ridd’s case is so important. If the High Court of Australia vindicates the authoritarian tactics of JCU to stamp down honest debate, then the idea of the pursuit of knowledge and truth at the modern university will be replaced with the pursuit of consensus. This will make the case for legislative reform of universities even more urgent.
It will be several months before the High Court hands down its decision, but one thing is clear – Ridd, in bringing this case to the High Court and, in doing so, making his story a national story, has changed Australia for the better.