Lawyers acting for sacked James Cook University professor Peter Ridd say the university sought to turn its disciplinary process into a “star chamber” after he publicly criticised the institution and one of its star scientists over claims about the impact global warming had on the Great Barrier Reef.
Professor Ridd, who worked at the university for 40 years, has challenged the dismissal in the Federal Court, saying the university breached its own enterprise agreement which allowed all staff to express controversial or unpopular views.
The physics professor’s lawyers say the Townsville-based university, which is renowned for its marine science expertise, dismissed Professor Ridd in 2018 for breaching its code of conduct.
But they argue that the code was secondary to the enterprise agreement.
Barrister Stuart Wood said his client had every right to criticise his colleagues and the university’s perceived lack of quality assurance processes.
The first alleged breach of the code occurred in April 2016, when Professor Ridd emailed a journalist to allege that images given to the media by the Australian Institute of Marine Science and Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority were misleading.
Professor Ridd said the images of bleached coral reefs near Stone Island, off the coast of Bowen in north Queensland, were misleading because they showed poorly affected corals, which were selected over nearby healthy coral and used to show “broad scale decline” of reef health.
Field technicians working for Professor Ridd took photos in the same vicinity as the bleaching pictures supplied by the university and GBRMPA which showed “spectacular coral living there”.
Professor Ridd told the journalist in the email that the use of the pictures was “a dramatic example of how scientific organisations are happy to spin a story for their own purposes”.
He also said his colleague Professor Terry Hughes, the head of JCU’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, would “wriggle and squirm” when asked to explain the discrepancies in the images.
“Mr Ridd said the photos being used were not, in his view, an accurate representation of what was going on at the site,” Mr Wood said.
“The complaint was that there should be much more care taken when representing the photos to ensure the story is not based on sensationalism but on science.”
Professor Ridd was sceptical of the photos and warnings around the health of the reef, which had undergone extensive bleaching, because his own academic work had shown coral health was not affected by sediment runoff or increased water temperatures, as claimed by other scientists
After receiving a warning from the university, Professor Ridd was censured again in November 2017 after appearing on Sky News and making similar claims about the lack of quality assurance processes on coral reef science.
At one stage Professor Ridd was told he could not even discuss the proceedings with his wife, leading Mr Wood to compare the proceedings to a coercive “star chamber”.