James Cook University has been ordered to pay reef scientist Peter Ridd $1.2 million for unlawfully dismissing him after he publicly criticised the institution’s climate change science.
Federal Circuit Court Justice Salvatore Vasta on Friday handed down the penalty following hearings earlier this year.
He ordered the Townsville university to pay Dr Ridd $1,094,214.47 as compensation for past and future economic loss because of the unlawful sacking, as well as general compensation for more than “three years of unfair treatment”.
JCU will have to pay a further $125,000 as a way of penalty.
The judge lambasted the university, saying it had “failed to respect (Dr Ridd’s) rights to intellectual freedom”.
The physics professor, who specialised in marine environments and worked at JCU for 30 years, on Friday lamented the ugly affair, saying it was “a fight that should never have started in the first place”.
“I have worked for 35 years on the Great Barrier Reef, and my genuinely held belief is that there are systemic quality assurance problems at Great Barrier Reef science institutions,” he said.
“I had a right, a duty, to say this.
“JCU have still not accepted this fundamental right despite the importance of the debate to the north Queensland region.”
Dr Ridd said that if JCU appeals, which it can do within the next three weeks, it would cast doubt on the institution’s claim to uphold academic freedom.
Having already spent more than $200,000 of his own money fighting the legal battle, on top of $260,000 accumulated through a crowdsourcing campaign, Dr Ridd said he would need to ask for further donations to fight an appeal.
JCU is believed to have spent more than $600,000 in legal fees.
“My lawyers say it is a landmark case so it is imperative that we continue the fight if necessary,” Dr Ridd said.
JCU has previously said it will appeal the decision and declined to comment further on the Friday’s ruling.
“The university’s position will be addressed in its appeal,” a spokesman said in a statement.
Dr Ridd was sacked last year after being censured three times for publicly criticising his colleagues and the university.
He claimed the science regarding the effects of coral bleaching and global warming on the Great Barrier Reef was not subject to adequate quality assurance.
In April, Justice Vasta ruled the dismissal was a breach of the university’s enterprise agreement.
In a scathing judgment handed down on Friday, the judge criticised the university for an “blatantly untrue” and “appalling” public statement it issued after the April ruling.
The statement, quoting Professor Chris Cocklin, was taken from an email that had been sent earlier to JCU staff denouncing the judge’s decision.
“The email was a blatant attempt to undermine this court’s decision and sow doubts about findings that had both vindicated the position taken by Professor Ridd and restored his reputation,” Justice Vasta said.
Justice Vasta described Dr Ridd as “scrupulously honest”.
“He is a person who does not make statements lightly and there is genuine conviction in what he says,” he said.
“The passion he has for his work and for the Great Barrier Reef is plain for all to see.”
Gideon Rozner, from the Institute of Public Affairs, which bankrolled some of Dr Ridd’s legal fees, said the decision should force JCU to rethink its appeal.
“The very fact that an Australian university is willing to force the weight of an entire administration backed by taxpayer funds to stifle an academic’s freedom of speech sends a massive chilling effect to any academic engaging in public debate in Australia,” Mr Rozner said.
At a penalty hearing in July, Dr Ridd said his career prospects had been tarnished by the controversy.