A Federal Court judge has ruled that James Cook University acted unlawfully when it sacked professor Peter Ridd 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, challenged the dismissal in the Federal Circuit Court, saying the university breached its own enterprise agreement which allowed all staff to express controversial or unpopular views.
The physics professor argued that the Townsville-based university, which is renowned for its marine science expertise, dismissed him for breaching the university’s code of conduct.
Handing down his decision today, judge Salvatore Vasta said that the 17 findings used by the university to justify the sacking were unlawful.
“The Court rules that the 17 findings made by the University, the two speech directions, the five confidentiality directions, the no satire direction, the censure and the final censure given by the University and the termination of employment of Professor Ridd by the University were all unlawful,” Judge Vasta said.
A penalty hearing will be set for a later date.
At a hearing last month, Professor Ridd’s barrister Stuart Wood argued his client was entitled to criticise his colleagues and the university’s perceived lack of quality assurance processes.
In 2016, 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 because they showed poorly affected corals, which were selected over nearby healthy coral and used to show “broad scale decline” of reef health.
Professor Ridd claimed the use of the images 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.
Professor Ridd was censured again when he repeated the claims on Sky News.
After a third alleged violation of the code of conduct, Professor Ridd was sacked in April 2018.