Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.
James Cook University took 28 separate actions against Professor Ridd. Each of them, including his termination, has been declared unlawful.
Few victories are as complete as the one achieved last week by Peter Ridd in the Federal Circuit Court of Australia.
A former head of the physics department at James Cook University, Ridd was fired after questioning the reliability of Great Barrier Reef research produced by some of his colleagues.
To quote the editor-in-chief of The Lancet, “much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue.” Whenever third parties attempt to replicate published research, they often get different answers altogether. Since government decisions can throw people out of work, disrupt families, and destroy communities, Ridd thinks it’s a bad idea to base government policy on research that hasn’t been double-checked.
This saga began in December 2015, after Ridd sent an e-mail to journalist Peter Michael of the Courier-Mail outlining his concerns about the misleading use of Great Barrier Reef photographs and other matters. His e-mail offered to condense his thoughts for publication, but also urged the newspaper to ask pointed questions of those in charge of two publicly funded organizations affiliated with his own university.
Some journalists go to jail to protect their sources. Peter Michael instead forwarded Ridd’s e-mail whole cloth to Terry Hughes, the director of one of those entities. Less than two hours after receiving it, Hughes informed a James Cook administrator that he wanted to “make a formal complaint” against Ridd for attacking his integrity.
There’s no indication that Hughes or anyone else at James Cook has ever addressed Ridd’s concerns. When the powers-that-be swung into action, silencing him was apparently the only thing on their mind.
Universities are supposed to be places of rigorous inquiry and vigorous debate. Academic tenure is supposed to prevent exactly this situation: a professor being hounded from campus for expressing unfashionable views.
Ridd’s superiors insist his criticism of his colleagues wasn’t the problem. The way he criticized them was. In other words, their position is that bad manners is a firing offence.
Between April 2016 and May 2018, James Cook University took 28 separate actions against Ridd. Each of them, including his termination, was declared unlawful by Judge Salvatore Vasta last week (see the full list, three pages long, here).
Vasta determined that the university’s relationship with its staff is governed first and foremost by an employment contract ratified by Australia’s Fair Work Commission. That contract can’t be altered without the federal agency’s say-so, and was described by the judge as “the basis from which other [university] documents gain their power.”
Clause 14 of the contract is devoted to Intellectual Freedom, a concept Judge Vasta calls “the cornerstone upon which the University exists. If the cornerstone is removed, the building tumbles.”
Clause 14 clearly proclaims James Cook to be an institution of independent thought where professors have the right to participate in public debate. It says “ideas may be put forward and opinion expressed freely,” including “unpopular or controversial views,” so long as the professors doing so don’t “harass, vilify, bully or intimidate those who disagree…”
Since Ridd hasn’t harassed, vilified, bullied, or intimidated anyone, the university has never claimed that Clause 14’s built-in limits apply.
Instead, those in charge have argued that a right recognized and affirmed by the Fair Work Commission isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. They say professors are only entitled to that right if they also abide by the university’s homegrown Code of Conduct, a rambling document that talks vaguely about “the collegial and academic spirit,” and instructs employees to “celebrate diversity.”
Ridd’s first Formal Censure said he’d violated the Code by failing to behave in a collegial manner and failing to respect the reputations of his colleagues (the only reputation actually mentioned in the Code is that of the university). It also claimed he’d gone to the media in a manner that “did not respect the rights of others.”
Judge Vasta observed that the university neglected to explain “exactly how this was not collegial or how the rights of others were not respected.” It just declared Ridd guilty of misconduct.
Using words such as “extraordinary” and “simply absurd,” the judge ruled that the Code of Conduct cannot be used as a mechanism to rob professors of something that has been guaranteed to them via the Fair Work Commission. In his words:
Clause 14 means that it is the right of Professor Ridd to say what he has said in any manner that he likes so long as he does not contravene the sanctions embedded in cl. 14. (my italics)
A few pages later, matters become crystal clear:
The termination of Professor Ridd’s employment was unlawful because it punished Professor Ridd for conduct that was protected by cl.14…
coming Wednesday: more on the Ridd ruling Part 2: Peter Ridd vs The Dishonourables
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