James Cook University professor Peter Ridd’s sacking ruled unlawful | Environment

James Cook University is considering its legal options after the federal circuit court ruled it had unlawfully sacked a professor who had criticised scientific research about the climate change impact on the Great Barrier Reef.

Peter Ridd, who was the head of the physics department at the institution from 2009 until 2016, took legal action against his dismissal.

Judge Salvatore Vasta ruled on Tuesday the 17 findings made by the university, the two speech directions, the five confidentiality directions, the no satire direction, the censure, the final censure and the termination of Ridd’s employment were all unlawful.

“Some have thought that this trial was about freedom of speech and intellectual freedom. Media reports have considered that this trial was about silencing persons with controversial or unpopular views,” Vasta said in his judgement.

“Rather, this trial was purely and simply about the proper construction of a clause in an enterprise agreement.”

The judgement noted Ridd had been in trouble with university management for contacting a News Corp journalist and making media appearances on Sky News after dark claiming he had breached a code of conduct.

Ridd had started a GoFundMe page asking for donations to fund his legal expenses and he also published material from the internal disciplinary process on a blog.

A number of media articles were also published where it was obvious that Prof Ridd had spoken to the journalist involved, the judgment said.

“Professionally, Professor Ridd had been concerned with the quality of the scientific research that had been published about the state of health of the Great Barrier Reef,” the judgment said.

“He had published a number of papers on the need for better quality assurance. In his opinion, the health of the Great Barrier Reef had been frequently misrepresented.”

Judge Vasta said the university has not understood the whole concept of intellectual freedom.

“[The] university has ‘played the man and not the ball’,” he said.

“Intellectual freedom is so important. It allows academics to express their opinions without fear of reprisals. It allows a Charles Darwin to break free of the constraints of creationism. It allows an Albert Einstein to break free of the constraints of Newtonian physics. It allows the human race to question conventional wisdom in the never-ending search for knowledge and truth.”

The Townsville-based university’s provost professor, Chris Cocklin, noted the judgment does not refer to any case law.

“We disagree with the judgment and we maintain we have not taken issue with Dr Ridd’s nor any other employee’s rights to academic freedom,” Cocklin said in a statement.

“Dr Ridd was not sacked because of his scientific views. Dr Ridd was never gagged or silenced about his scientific views, a matter which was admitted during the court hearing.”

The case has been adjourned for a further hearing to award a penalty.

Comment was sought from Ridd.

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