The Federal Circuit Court has ruled that James Cook University unlawfully sacked a professor who had criticised scientific research about the impact of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef.
But Judge Salvatore Vasta was quick to point out that the case had nothing to do with the professor’s controversial views on climate change, but rather “the trial was purely and simply about the proper construction of a clause in an enterprise agreement”.
Still, that hasn’t stopped a number of right-wing media outlets incorrectly reporting the details of the case, and the reasons for Judge Vasta’s decision, claiming instead, that the professor was sacked for expressing an unpopular view about climate change.
Doctor Peter Ridd was the head of the physics department at JCU from 2009 until 2016.
He was issued with a number of warnings following comments he made about a lead coral researcher and for telling media outlets that organisations like the Institute of Marine Science could “no longer be trusted”.
In an email, Doctor Ridd described his colleague as “not having any clue about the weather”, and that he “will give the normal doom science about the Great Barrier Reef”.
Doctor Ridd said in another email that JCU, along with other universities, were “Orwellian in nature”.
Professor a regular on ‘conspiratorial’ Sky News After Dark
Judge Vasta noted that Doctor Ridd had been in trouble with university management for contacting a News Corp journalist and making media appearances on ultra-right-wing conspiratorial Sky News After Dark programming.
A number of media articles were also published where it was obvious that Doctor Ridd had spoken to the journalist involved, according to the judgement.
“Professionally, Professor Ridd had been concerned with the quality of the scientific research that had been published about the state of health of the Great Barrier Reef,” Judge Vasta said.
“He had published a number of papers on the need for better quality assurance. In his opinion, the health of the Great Barrier Reef had been frequently misrepresented.”
Doctor Ridd was dismissed last year for a number of breaches of the university’s code of conduct.
Academic not sacked for climate views
Doctor Ridd took legal action after his dismissal, with Judge Vasta ruling yesterday that 17 findings and decisions made by the university were unlawful.
They included two speech directions, five confidentiality directions, a no satire direction, a censure, the final censure and the termination of Ridd’s employment.
“Some have thought that this trial was about freedom of speech and intellectual freedom. Media reports have considered that this trial was about silencing persons with controversial or unpopular views,” Judge Vasta said in his judgement.
“Rather, this trial was purely and simply about the proper construction of a clause in an enterprise agreement.”
Judge Vasta said the university has not understood the whole concept of intellectual freedom.
“[The] university has ‘played the man and not the ball’,” he said.
The university’s provost professor, Chris Cocklin, disagreed with the judgement, noting that it does not refer to any case law.
“[We] are also troubled by the fact that he fails to refer to any legal precedent or case law in Australia to support his interpretation of our enterprise agreement, or academic freedom in Australian employment law,” he said in a statement.
Professor Cocklin maintained in the statement that Doctor Ridd was not sacked because of his “scientific views”.
“Peter Ridd was never gagged or silenced,” the statement said.
“We maintain we have not taken issue with Doctor Ridd’s, nor any other employee’s, rights to academic freedom.
“What was in issue was how to he communicated about others, how he denigrated others, and how he breached confidentiality, which impacted not only on him, but on others.”
“Doctor Ridd was not sacked because of his scientific views. Doctor Ridd was never gagged or silenced about his scientific views, a matter which was admitted during the court hearing.”
Professor Cocklin confirmed the university is now “considering its options”.
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