Peter Ridd
Professor Peter Ridd

Professor Peter Ridd once published a book titled Input admittance of a horizontal antenna over a two layered lossy halfspace, so he’s, you know, a funny guy. That may be why his former employer, James Cook University (JCU), had to specifically direct him to cease “trivialising, satirising or parodying” the University. His refusal to do so was one of the grounds for his sacking, following a lengthy disciplinary process, in 2018.

Famously, Ridd won his case for unfair dismissal. Judge Salvatore Vasta of the Federal Circuit Court ordered JCU to pay him some $1.2 million in damages for treating him so shabbily, after proceedings in which Ridd was supported by the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and a GoFundMe campaign. His victory was held up as a seminal moment for the cause of free speech and, specifically, intellectual freedom.

Sadly, the Full Federal Court has chosen to spoil the freedom party, unanimously overturning the Vasta decision on appeal and giving JCU a comprehensive win instead.

Ridd is a marine geophysicist and was head of JCU’s physics department from 2009 to 2016. The root of his troubles with JCU were opinions he had held for a while about the quality of published scientific research into the health of the Great Barrier Reef. Basically, he thinks the reef is not dying off as the preponderance of scientific thought has concluded. This has made him a go-to commentator for climate change deniers and sceptics.

The trouble began in 2015 when Ridd emailed a News Limited journalist suggesting that reports on degradation of the reef caused by sediment flow, produced by a research body affiliated by JCU and headed by a JCU professor, were unreliable. Following a complaint, Ridd was formally censured  for denigrating JCU’s integrity.

That set off a chain of escalation by both parties. Ridd published an essay on “the facts” of climate change, prompting an invitation to be interviewed by Alan Jones and Peta Credlin on Jones’ Sky News program.  Another complaint followed.

As a formal investigation ensued, Ridd was warned to respect the confidentiality of the disciplinary process. He proceeded to do the opposite, distributing confidential material making various statements about his lack of faith in the process itself.

His view can be summarised by his cliched claim in an email sent to various external recipients, that the “whole university system pretends to value free debate, but in fact it crushes it whenever the ‘wrong’ ideas are spoken. They are truly an [sic] Orwellian in nature.”

Ultimately, JCU’s investigation found that Ridd had breached numerous obligations under its code of conduct and terminated his employment. By then, he was already suing.

Ostensibly, the legal case was not a battleground for the contested issue of intellectual freedom, but rather just about the interpretation of exceedingly dry legal documents.

The legal issue was whether JCU’s code of conduct, which imposes obligations on staff (including academics) in relation to their behaviour and carries consequences up to termination for breaches, was overridden by a provision in the JCU enterprise agreement. This clause said that JCU was committed to protecting and promoting “intellectual freedom”, including the right of staff “to express unpopular or controversial views”.

Judge Vasta concluded that the enterprise agreement trumped the code of conduct, meaning that JCU could not pursue a disciplinary breach whenever the principle of intellectual freedom was engaged. The Full Court said that was completely wrong; there was no inconsistency between intellectual freedom being preserved and the university being able to regulate its own employees’ behaviour.

As the Full Court noted, Ridd did not challenge the findings that he had breached the code of conduct, so the legal case didn’t engage the question of whether he’d behaved badly. The hill he had chosen to die on was the in-principle question of whether he had an inalienable right to the nebulous thing called “intellectual freedom”.

JCU had been careful to nail Ridd not for the fact that he held opinions directly contrary to a cause that the university publicly and vocally supports (the urgent need for preservation of the reef), nor that he expressed them in public. It went for the ancillary aspects of his behaviour: denigrating his colleagues, calling the university’s integrity into question; and being a smart-arse about it all.

On top of that were the wholesale breaches of confidentiality in relation to the disciplinary process itself, clearly unrelated to any question of intellectual freedom.

That’s why Ridd lost the appeal and has been left empty-handed. The IPA will be sorely disappointed that its investment has produced a lemon, although Ridd will continue to be a handy martyr to the cause of freedom.

He was a bad choice for poster boy. It wasn’t his controversial world-view that was the problem, but his refusal to play nice. One could definitely pick fault with JCU’s code of conduct — it seems unnecessarily draconian to me — however the law does empower employers to visit consequences on those who too viciously bite the hand that feeds them.

Peter Fray

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