Peter Ridd Seeks High Court Appeal: Universities Face Govt Review Of Threat To Academic Freedom

  • Date: 28/07/20
  • The Australian

Sacked James Cook University professor Peter Ridd will go to the High Court over his controversial sacking for publicly criticising the institution and his colleagues over their climate change science.

A week after the Federal Circuit Court overturned an earlier court decision awarding him $1.2m, the marine physicist has confirmed the next front in his legal battle that has already cost more than $1m. Professor Ridd, who has personally spent $300,000 in his fight, has rallied his supporters in a fresh fundraising bid aimed at amassing $630,000 to bankroll his appeal to the highest court.

The Federal Circuit Court found the Townsville-based university had not acted unlawfullywhen it sacked their employee of 30 years in 2018 for breaching its code of conduct with his criticism and by breaking a confidentiality direction in discussing the ensuing disciplinary process.

The court ruled that the code of conduct trumped the intellectual freedom provisions in the university’s enterprise agreement.

Professor Ridd told The Australian on Tuesday he had already spent $1.15m on his legal campaign, $860,000 of which came from donations.

For the scientist, 59, the fight is about more than the loss of potential earnings from a stalled academic career. “This is about principle,” Professor Ridd told The Australian. “We’ve got to have it that academics can speak.

“The fact is that because it was justified to fire me, any academic who wants to speak out about the Great Barrier Reef or any controversial issue will know it’s not worth the risk.”

Professor Ridd said his lawyers had convinced him of “numerous strong grounds for appeal”, which he had weighed against the exhaustive mental toll wrought by two years of legal action.

“I don’t take the decision to ­appeal lightly,” he said in a notice to be ­uploaded to his GoFundMe page, which has been the basis of his fundraising effort.

“The financial and emotional costs are high and legal action is fraught with uncertainties.” First, Professor Ridd would have to convince the High Court the case involved “a question of law of public importance”, to be granted special leave to appeal the Federal Circuit Court decision.

The court’s verdict has been praised by the university representative group, the Australian Higher Education Industrial ­Association, which said the verdict “upholds the university’s right to set appropriate behavioural standards in the exercise of those rights” and rejected the premise that the sacking was an intellectual freedom issue. Professor Ridd said the criticism of colleagues was integral to his argument that the university’s climate change science relating to the reef was untrustworthy, driven by emotion and lacking rigorous scrutiny.

“I was fired for being critical of my colleagues … for an academic comment I made about quality assurance in science,” he said.

Professor Ridd said he was “quite encouraged” by federal Education Minister Dan Tehan’s commitment last week to review the new university model code, developed by former High Court chief justice Robert French, aimed at protecting freedom of speech on university campuses.

“Anything he (Tehan) does has to be put into the (enterprise) agreement,” Professor Ridd said.

“As soon as there is any doubt, the university will win because the academic knows they can’t afford the legal battle.”

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