Dr Peter Ridd has taken James Cook University to court protesting his sacking for what he says is, primarily, speaking-out about the lack of quality assurance in Great Barrier Reef science.
Dr Ridd spoke out initially about there being no quality assurance of Great Barrier Reef science – science that is arguably misused to secure billions of dollars of tax-payer funding. When the University tried to stop Dr Ridd doing this, Dr Ridd spoke out against University management – making all the documentation public including on his new website.
I would really like the court case to be about academic freedom and the science – to lay bare the evidence. But when I went to the first day of the hearing of an application in the Federal Circuit Court last Monday (11th June – the hearing continued on 12 June 2018) for an order for reinstatement of Dr Ridd’s employment pending determination at trial, it quickly became evident that there would be no testing of the actual scientific evidence relied upon by Dr Ridd to claim that scientific institutions like AIMS and ARC Centre “can no longer be trusted” and “spin their story”.
Yesterday (19th June), Judge Jarrett gave his reasons for making orders declining to reinstate Dr Ridd but allowing him to amend his primary application to include a claim for the university taking “adverse action” against him for exercising a workplace right (i.e. his intellectual/academic freedom pursuant to the enterprise agreement). On hearing the reasons I was concerned to discover that it may all come down to poorly worded clauses in an enterprise agreement. In particular, was Dr Ridd allowed to exercise his academic freedoms free of the constraint of the university’s ‘aspirational’ (according to His Honour) code of conduct, and was he permitted to say anything publicly about what many ordinary Australians would consider a straight-forward case of the university bullying him into silence?
On the first day of the preliminary hearing Barrister Ben Kidston for the applicant (Dr Ridd) argued eloquently about how the case was about ‘academic freedom’. He went-on for over an hour moving from the big picture to the detail with respect to specific clauses in a code of conduct and the enterprise agreement, and back again. All the while His Honour and the audience listened intently – no one interrupted. Again yesterday, His Honour cited the poorly worded specific clause which the university has been relying on to silence Dr Ridd, and observed that it was open to two interpretations.
His Honour didn’t mention the Union. The National Tertiary Education Union has an interest in the enterprise agreement and like Dr Ridd, they say that the relevant clause in the agreement shouldn’t be used to silence the employee but rather, amongst other things, that the obligation of confidentiality only applies to the University’s management of the disciplinary process. Any other interpretation means that university academics would be obliged to suffer any disciplinary action by the University (legitimate or otherwise) in silence – they would never be able to publicly defend themselves in the court of public opinion, court proceedings being the only practical option. One wonders if the Union realises the implications to its members.