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JCU academic fails in free speech dispute

Although the High Court held that enterprise agreements protected academics from censure for their “honestly held opinions.”

Physicist Peter Ridd was unsuccessful in his free-speech dispute with James Cook University despite support from the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). The High Court recently dismissed his appeal, branded “all-or-nothing.” 

Ridd, an employee of 27 years, was fired from James Cook after his public comments on the Great Barrier Reef were found to constitute a breach of the university’s code of conduct as outlined by the enterprise agreement. In 2017, Ridd told Sky News that scientists are too emotionally attached to the Reef, meaning “you can no longer trust their stuff.”

Ridd’s argument for appeal surrounded conserving the sanctity of intellectual freedom as enshrined in the enterprise agreements. Despite the appeal’s dismissal, the High Court held that the enterprise agreements protected academics from censure for their “honestly held opinions”, but Ridd’s opinion was considered denigrating towards fellow staff. 

The High Court held that this intellectual freedom protection enshrined in Clause 14 did not mitigate the “requirement to afford respect and courtesy in the manner of this exercise”. 

The Court also concluded that Ridd broke James Cook’s directive of confidentiality by publicly opposing the university disciplinary process.  

Matthew McGowan, the general secretary of the NTEU, stated that the union’s enterprise agreements thus stood as the “only legal remedy to protect academic and intellectual freedom”. He claims that the NTEU supports academic freedom, even in cases of “statements that are controversial or unpopular”.

As a new round of enterprise bargaining negotiations begin at James Cook, the NTEU will continue to fight for these agreements to defend academic intellectual freedom.