The final joke at the centre of the scandal of Peter Ridd’s sacking is that James Cook University wants more of our tax dollars to get through the economic crisis. It doesn’t deserve any, let alone more.
University life in the 21st century was confirmed by a court this week as being more concerned with the regulation of behaviour and the advent of social media than with the promotion of intellectual freedom and the pursuit of truth.
That is the summary of the decision of the full court of the Federal Court of Australia, on appeal from the Federal Circuit Court, released on Wednesday, that found James Cook University had legally terminated professor of physics Peter Ridd after 27 years of employment.
The esteemed scientist was sacked by JCU after the university claimed that, in breach of the JCU code of conduct, Ridd failed to act in a “collegial” manner and failed to treat a fellow staff member with “respect and courtesy”. Ridd’s uncollegial, disrespectful and discourteous crime was to question the quality of science emanating from parts of JCU about coral bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef in an email to a journalist and during an interview on Sky News.
It is a close contest as to which institution should be more ashamed of itself. A university that has spent many hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend sacking an academic rather than defend intellectual freedom, and has still shown zero interest in testing Ridd’s claims about the lack of quality assurance of science emanating from JCU? Or the full court of the Federal Court for endorsing Ridd’s termination?
Upholding JCU’s appeal against an earlier decision that awarded $1.2m to Ridd because the university had unlawfully sacked him, the Federal Court has found that it is more important for a university to control behaviour under a code of conduct than to meet its commitment to academics in an enterprise agreement to protect intellectual freedom.
There are three absurdities at the core of the joint judgment by justices Sarah Derrington and John Griffiths, both former academics, no less.
The nonsense starts with the fact the judges perform a convoluted and unseemly set of linguistic gymnastics to side with JCU. In clause 14.1 of the enterprise agreement between JCU and its staff, JCU explicitly commits “to act in a manner consistent with the protection and promotion of intellectual freedom”. The rest of clause 14 explains intellectual freedom. Clause 13.3 of that enterprise agreement says JCU’s code of conduct “is not intended to detract from Clause 14”.
The farce gets worse when the majority of the court concede that JCU’s code of conduct is “couched in vague and imprecise language”. In fact, the two judges go further, describing as “an unfortunate consequence of the drafting, particularly given the very serious consequences” that the code’s provisions “do not readily provide clear guidance to staff as to whether particular conduct might breach the obligations outlined in the code of conduct so as to amount to misconduct, or indeed, serous misconduct. Reasonable minds may differ about whether particular conduct in fact breaches the obligations on any given occasion.”
Given the ambiguity at the heart of the code of conduct, one might think that a university, of all places, should err on the side of intellectual freedom for its academics when applying its code. It’s not hard to imagine an academic feeling peeved if another academic challenges their work. It might not seem very collegial, let alone respectful. So what? That’s part and parcel of the necessary rigours of academic life; it’s how one set of claims is tested and confirmed or found wanting.
One might think that if a university failed to err on the side of intellectual freedom, at least a court would uphold the mission of a university when confronted with a hopelessly vague code of conduct. After all, what is the point of providing for an intellectual freedom clause in an enterprise agreement if it can be rendered meaningless by a code of conduct so vague that just about anything might subjectively be classed as uncollegial or lacking in respect and courtesy? Yet that is precisely what the Federal Court did in upholding JCU’s claim to sack Ridd.
The farcical nature of this decision gets worse. The majority judges said: “There is little to be gained in resorting to historical concepts and definitions of academic freedom. Whatever the concept once meant, it has evolved to take into account contemporary circumstances which present a challenge to it, including the internet, social media and trolling, none of which informed the view of persons such as JS Mill, John Locke, Isaiah Berlin and others who have written on the topic.”
Citing “a host of new challenges” and “changing norms” and “the rise of social media” and “student demands for accommodations such as content warnings and safe spaces”, the judges suggest they are in “uncharted waters” when it comes to academic freedom. Confused? So is the court as it tries to explain that the recent arrival of Twitter and other social media platforms, and new demands for protection from ideas by some students, has led the Federal Court to allow a university to use a hopelessly vague code of conduct to sideline a centuries-old tradition of intellectual inquiry that is at the heart of human progress. The court has used Twitter to kill intellectual exploration, innovation and open debate.
This is a judicial shout-out to the fans of cancel culture, an invitation to more safe spaces, trigger warnings to protect people from uncomfortable dissent. Keep going, with our judicial imprimatur, the court is saying, and these “contemporary circumstances” will help “evolve” the limits of acceptable intellectual inquiry.
The ramifications of this decision cannot have been lost on the court. This is a warning shot to every other academic who may want to raise doubts, questions or differing views that they might also fall foul of other vaguely drafted codes of conduct at any one of the country’s other universities. No junior academic, no matter how brilliant, is going to risk getting sacked if Ridd, a scientist of 27 years’ standing, can’t exercise intellectual freedom.
Remember that Ridd wasn’t querying the interpretation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. He was raising questions, in one particular area of his expertise, about the quality of climate change science. One of the fundamental challenges of our generation is to get the science right so we can settle on the right climate change policies. JCU told Ridd to keep quiet, then it sacked him. And a court has endorsed its actions.
JCU’s conduct, and the court’s decision, has sent intellectual inquiry down the gurgler in the 21st century at an institution fundamental to Western civilisation. Is that to be legacy of JCU’s vice-chancellor Sandra Harding? And what oversight has JCU’s governing council provided to this reputational damage, not to mention the waste of taxpayer dollars, in pursuing a distinguished scientist who was admired by his students?
Following this decision, no academic can assume that an Australian university will allow the kind of robust debate held at Oxford University in 1860 between the bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, and Thomas Henry Huxley, a biologist and proponent of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
The Historical Journal records how this legendary encounter unfolded: “The Bishop rose, and in a light scoffing tone, florid and fluent he assured us there was nothing in the idea of evolution: rock-pigeons were what rock-pigeons have always been. Then, turning to his antagonist with a smiling insolence, he begged to know, was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey? On this Mr Huxley slowly and deliberately arose. A slight tall figure stern and pale, very quiet and very grave, he stood before us, and spoke those tremendous words … He was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth.”
Not for nothing, Ridd’s lawyers submitted this example of intellectual freedom during the first trial. In sacking Ridd, and to win in court, JCU had to argue against the means that seeks the truth — intellectual freedom.