Can Universities Lawfully Bully Academics into Silence?

Dr Peter Ridd has taken James Cook University to court protesting his sacking for what he says is, primarily, speaking-out about the lack of quality assurance in Great Barrier Reef science.

Dr Ridd spoke out initially about there being no quality assurance of Great Barrier Reef science – science that is arguably misused to secure billions of dollars of tax-payer funding. When the University tried to stop Dr Ridd doing this, Dr Ridd spoke out against University management – making all the documentation public including on his new website.

I would really like the court case to be about academic freedom and the science – to lay bare the evidence. But when I went to the first day of the hearing of an application in the Federal Circuit Court last Monday (11th June – the hearing continued on 12 June 2018) for an order for reinstatement of Dr Ridd’s employment pending determination at trial, it quickly became evident that there would be no testing of the actual scientific evidence relied upon by Dr Ridd to claim that scientific institutions like AIMS and ARC Centre “can no longer be trusted” and “spin their story”.

Yesterday (19th June), Judge Jarrett gave his reasons for making orders declining to reinstate Dr Ridd but allowing him to amend his primary application to include a claim for the university taking “adverse action” against him for exercising a workplace right (i.e. his intellectual/academic freedom pursuant to the enterprise agreement). On hearing the reasons I was concerned to discover that it may all come down to poorly worded clauses in an enterprise agreement. In particular, was Dr Ridd allowed to exercise his academic freedoms free of the constraint of the university’s ‘aspirational’ (according to His Honour) code of conduct, and was he permitted to say anything publicly about what many ordinary Australians would consider a straight-forward case of the university bullying him into silence?

On the first day of the preliminary hearing Barrister Ben Kidston for the applicant (Dr Ridd) argued eloquently about how the case was about ‘academic freedom’. He went-on for over an hour moving from the big picture to the detail with respect to specific clauses in a code of conduct and the enterprise agreement, and back again. All the while His Honour and the audience listened intently – no one interrupted. Again yesterday, His Honour cited the poorly worded specific clause which the university has been relying on to silence Dr Ridd, and observed that it was open to two interpretations.

His Honour didn’t mention the Union. The National Tertiary Education Union has an interest in the enterprise agreement and like Dr Ridd, they say that the relevant clause in the agreement shouldn’t be used to silence the employee but rather, amongst other things, that the obligation of confidentiality only applies to the University’s management of the disciplinary process. Any other interpretation means that university academics would be obliged to suffer any disciplinary action by the University (legitimate or otherwise) in silence – they would never be able to publicly defend themselves in the court of public opinion, court proceedings being the only practical option. One wonders if the Union realises the implications to its members.

Yesterday, when His Honour gave his reasons for declining the application by Dr Ridd for an injunction – for his temporary reinstatement as a Professor at James Cook University pending the trial – he didn’t deal with many of the arguments advanced for Dr Ridd e.g. the effect of the clause of the enterprise agreement which states that the code of conduct is not to “detract” from the intellectual freedoms, the interaction of the express right to disagree with the University‘s decisions and processes pursuant to his intellectual freedom and the purported obligation to keep disciplinary proceedings again him confidential, whether a conflict of interest, apprehended bias or actual bias, exists by reason of the university’s commercial relationship with AIMS, GBRMPA and ARC and the effect that this has on the obligation to afford Dr Ridd procedural fairness and natural justice in the determination of the disciplinary complaint (which concerned comments he made about those bodies).

That is not intended to be critical of His Honour. His Honour took a broad brush approach and did not descend into the detail of the arguments and the evidence, as all His Honour was required to do was to ascertain whether Dr Ridd had a prima facie case, and not to decide the case itself.

Yesterday, His Honour found that Dr Ridd had an arguable prima facie case in relation to the alleged breach of the enterprise agreement by JCU and that it took adverse action against him, but that the balance of convenience did not favour his reinstatement pending trial primarily because:
1. an award of damages would be an adequate remedy if Dr Ridd was successful at trial; and
2. the university paid Dr Ridd the equivalent of six month’s pay upon his termination – so he was not presently without income to support himself and (it seems) that a trial would likely occur before the expiration of that six month period; and
3. Dr Ridd had previously turned down an offer of an undertaking by the university to suspend the disciplinary proceedings pending determination of the proceeding. It is important to note that that undertaking would have required Dr Ridd to remain silent about the disciplinary proceedings that had been taken against him by the university.

Of course, in making this determination the Judge was entirely ignoring (as he was entitled to) the very nature of Dr Ridd – a man of integrity who will not be silenced even if costs him his job, his career and results in vicious bullying.

When Christopher Murdoch QC for the respondent (JCU) argued on the first day of the hearing he explained that the University’s core issue was the breaking of confidentiality, in particular Dr Ridd was not allowed to tell anyone that he had been censured. Never mind that he had been censured for daring to speak out against a culture where scientific integrity is perhaps sacrificed for profit.

So, when I blogged about this issue of Peter Ridd being censured and the need for everyone to contribute to his GoFundMe Campaign back in May, I very deliberately emphasised the importance of being able to speak out. The most important thing, I wrote, is to not be silenced.

I was also thinking of the famous Edmund Burke quote: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Dr Ridd has done something. First, he detailed the scientific facts as an expert on these issues including in the scientific literature. For example, there is his article published in Marine Geology (Volume 346, pages 392-399) in which he explains that the only reason Glenn De’ath found an apparent decline in coral calcification rates was because he didn’t consider the age effect on coral growth. This is just one of many instances when Dr Ridd has detailed how scientists make spurious claims based on a flawed methodology. More recently Dr Ridd has explained the consequences of this in plain English on television.

None of this has made him popular with his colleagues most of whom rely on perceptions of imminent catastrophe at the Great Barrier Reef for their relevance and certainly their funding. Dr Ridd has done what the average Australian would consider to be the right thing. Most importantly he has not remained silent – surely, he will be vindicated at the final trial when all the evidence is heard and all the arguments made and considered.

John Abbot and John Nicol outside the Federal Court in Brisbane yesterday, following the preliminary hearing of Peter Vincent Ridd versus James Cook University.

26 Responses to Can Universities Lawfully Bully Academics into Silence?

  1. cohenite June 19, 2018 at 2:01 pm #

    Thank you Jennifer. It is not unusual for people to get their jobs back and His Honour’s reasons for not doing so lacked clarity. People can get reinstated and receive damages.

  2. MarcH June 19, 2018 at 4:30 pm #

    Thanks for update. Seems some optimism warranted, but that it’s got to this is a stunning indictment on the current state scientific inquiry in this country.

  3. Salome June 19, 2018 at 4:53 pm #

    Nicely reported. Yes, it’s all about the balance of convenience at this stage.

  4. Anthony Kellerman June 19, 2018 at 4:57 pm #

    It is interesting seeing academics and their science, being manipulated for the new religion of Global warming. Whether you believe in the global warming the effects or lack of is actually irrelevant. surely it’s about arguing the science either way, and watching academics intellectually argue their cause. We as bystanders then after the debate get to choose our view from facts, not fiction. This is clearly no longer the case at academic institutions.
    We should stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. This is never been more a serious problem than today, when our academic institutions believe,
    A. you cant have an opinion, if it is not the opinion of the University and
    B, when you do have an opinion, don’t use science to argue your case, you will be silenced, if that university has a different opinion!

    Casing point China, Russia, Nth Korea and Cuba – We will tell you the science and we will manipulate peer reviewed papers to support our one and only view.

    This is an important case, but like you said it is a shame the courts will not be arguing the science and its manipulated peer reviewed reports.

  5. John Angelico June 19, 2018 at 5:13 pm #

    Thanks for the update.

    Cohenite, you are correct, but sometimes getting the job back is just not worth it.

    As this has become a sharply confrontational dispute, it is unlikely that Dr Ridd would be able to work in the same place and maintain personal/professional relationships with his colleagues.

  6. Graeme Pyle June 19, 2018 at 5:16 pm #

    Peter will probably end up with a judgement that will cause great concern for scientists .
    These days it appears that science can be bought through the grants system including whole universities.
    Money has that effect on people and we may have expected too much of our scientists. The thalidomide man can crashing back to earth when the debendox case hit court.
    Lost his Doctor ticket for five years as well.
    This is a great case to get science back from the trough Jen.
    Let the truth go free
    We are all here to see justice done!
    We cannot stand idle while bad things are happening

  7. spangled drongo June 19, 2018 at 5:56 pm #

    “None of this has made him popular with his colleagues most of whom rely on perceptions of imminent catastrophe at the Great Barrier Reef for their relevance and certainly their funding.”

    Beautifully put, Jen.

    We can only hope the judge can fully grasp this fundamental aspect of the situation too.

  8. Hamish Grant June 19, 2018 at 7:29 pm #

    Talk about deja vue.

    As a recent B.Sc. graduate at the University of Queensland in 1968, I was just starting my Honours year in Organic Chemistry.

    Apart from the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, the frequent front page news & Channel 2 evening TV news almost daily included dire warnings from Professor Robert Endean, head of the Zoology (as I recall) department at UQ, that, unless the Bjelke-Peterson state government provided 100s of million $s, the Great Barrier Reef would be dead in a decade, consumed by a plague of the Crown of Thorns Starfish.

    His approach was low-impact but laughable (even at the time) as it involved teams of 1000s of scuba divers impaling single starfish, one at a time, with electric prods. A back of the envelope calculation showed that 10,000 divers could eliminate all these parasites in around 70 years, working in daylight hours.

    Sadly for Prof. Endean, Nature stepped in & the natural predator of the CoT, a species of sea cucumber (I am not sure) upregulated their population growth (as is very often the case) & had cleared 90% of the reef in about 5 years – at zero cost to the Qld. taxpayer.

    Bet most readers of your blog would never have heard of this silly-science episode from the late 60s. You certainly wont be reminded by the ABC.

    Of course in those days, his colleagues would have remained totally collegial & not even politely pointed out what bad science his idiotic crusade had represented.

    No academic staff member was (physically) harmed in the making of this forgotten debacle.

  9. Martin Hovland June 19, 2018 at 7:52 pm #

    I like the term: “Glacial pace” that Peter uses about the court case’s pace of advance. I understand that this is a game of slugging it out, and having enough patience and stubborness to endure.

    To me, the way forward is easy (for Peter), just stick to FACTS (as you have published them). Ignore rudeness and bullying and ad hominem insults, just brush them aside and let them rot, without commenting on them. However, if and when your facts are discussed, just stick to your guns and tell them to prove that your facts and findings are wrong…

  10. hunter June 19, 2018 at 9:28 pm #

    Thank you for this update.
    Your report balances clear discussion with enthusiasm quite well.
    The perception of the Court moving at a slow pace and the expectation of this being finished in six months is, from an American perspective, richly ironic.
    The Court is likely to avoid a trial on the science. Climate extremists, while happy to use Courts to further silence unwelcome voices, seldom like their fanaticism actually tested.
    And the Court is typically only focused on the law itself.

  11. James June 19, 2018 at 10:03 pm #

    Well written. Anyone would think you were a journalis, except you actually research the facts.

  12. Trevor June 20, 2018 at 1:52 am #

    Thanks Jennifer for the comprehensive coverage.
    Further to John Angelico’s comment regarding the ability of Peter Ridd to
    continue working with his former colleagues ;
    perhaps IF he wins his case and they offer him the JCU position back
    again then his colleagues will feel freer to express their convictions
    and it actually WILL open up the scientific discussion to the
    benefit of the science and us !
    After all , as tax-payers , WE are their employers and we should be
    gaining the benefits if there are any to be had !
    Regrettably , the science will remain cloaked in “Colligiate
    Conspiracy ” it seems.

  13. Dan June 20, 2018 at 2:55 am #

    “the University’s core issue was the breaking of confidentiality, in particular Dr Ridd was not allowed to tell anyone that he had been censured.”
    Unfortunately, it sounds like this case is no longer about academic freedom, but about whether a person can make public the details of a private censure proceeding. This does not give me any confidence that Dr Ridd will win the case. And personally, I think it is within a companies or universities rights to terminate an employee who makes public private information.
    I think Dr Ridd had options.
    1. Stay employed and fight the censure from within the university or in the courts but keep it private.
    2. Stay employed and ignore the censure and force the university to fire him and then sue.
    3. Quit and then make public the censure and sue.

  14. DAVID HOUGHTON June 20, 2018 at 7:47 am #

    Thank you, Jennifer. Something is certainly rotten in the state of Denmark/JCU.

  15. Bob Evermon June 20, 2018 at 10:22 am #

    Well here we go — As a Professor Emeritus Emily Carr University of Art for over 40 years as a professor. I have had fights like this in the world of Art teaching at the University of California Art Department , the governor of California ( Ronald Reagan) would not let a MFA student graduate because of nudity and sexual content in his sculpture. A large school ( 30 thousand students) All 40 art professors and the president of the University standing with us, said the art work was great and he will graduate, also he will have his MFA art show ( required to graduate for MFA students) It dragged on, the university president quit and we had huge student demonstrations. The show was finally set up for Bill Spader and we were there lined up to see the show, but someone came around with a sign saying that the show will not open signed Governor Ronald Reagan. He went on to be the president of the United States. It is a longer story and another connection. When I was very young my dad was a friend of Ronald Reagan. Reagan was a baseball broadcaster in Iowa and my dad would set with him at the games… You will win this…Take Care —-

  16. ianl8888 June 20, 2018 at 5:43 pm #

    @John Angelico June 19, 2018 at 5:13 pm #

    I agree with you that Peter may not want his old job back (perhaps he does and I’m wrong). The exact situation with regard to the disagreement on scientific matters will still pertain. Peter will insist that grant mining is destroying scientific integrity and those whose fear R&D funds may be threatened by this will once again seek to censor him publicly. The JCU position as outlined in the MSM is that Peter may think whatever he wishes but if it’s critical he cannot say it publicly … Kafka lives.

    That the actual disagreement on scientific detail will not be examined in public court is exactly what I expected. One could not help noticing that the various expressions of crocodile tears from politicians/academics etc only started when Peter achieved his crowdfunded $260k target to initiate the court hearings.

    Politicians, bureaucrats, academics, JCU lawyers and the MSM will do everything possible to prevent the actual scientific evidence from becoming detailed in public. So, crocodile tears and reinstatement suddenly flowed into the TV “space” (nauseating term).

  17. Bob Evermon June 21, 2018 at 4:38 am #

    Can governments tell Universities that a student can not graduate?? It happened at the University of California Long Beach when Ronald Reagan stopped a student from having his grad show, when the University said he should graduate…

  18. Bob Evermon June 21, 2018 at 4:59 am #

    The whole world is watching what happens here- The internet world and thousands of Climate Scientists. I have been waiting to see the UNs IPCC cancelled sense I did a study for them in 2009. Working on this scam of a study, I could see that it was a setup to have us say just what the IPCC wanted us to say. Another long story. Prof. Emeritus Bob Evermon

  19. Celia June 21, 2018 at 6:18 am #

    JCU is a well-known corrupt university who’s VC is still sitting there with a $1million yearly salary. I don’t know how such poor management and handling of matters hasn’t got them shafted yet.

    JCU is literally the definition of Kangaroo court, we can see how they let victims of rape and abuse be silenced/ punished for speaking out for years.

    Best of luck to Peter I have a feeling JCU might fold early instead of wanting to hash it out in court as it will most likely completely put their reputation in the pits.

  20. Carl Marshall June 21, 2018 at 3:14 pm #

    It seems to me that the JCU case is a bit like a fig leaf that doesn’t cover the naughty bits and consequently the big picture remains an obscenity .

  21. DaveR June 22, 2018 at 10:01 am #

    It seems to me that Peter Ridd – the applicant in this case – is arguing that JCU used regulations to sack him as a cover for the real reason – that he had called out JCU’s protection of shoddy reef science to continue the funding flow to the institution.

    Peter Ridd is arguing that JCU’s protection of shoddy science includes allowing of poor quality control; less than rigorous experimental methods; over promotion and exaggeration of negative environmental results; and stifling and restricting of contrary views – which is the part that impinges on Peter Ridd’s academic rights.

    Implicit in this argument is the assertion that JCU has a clear financial motive in sacking him amongst other actions, in protecting its funding flows.

    Of course JCU will argue strongly that its research management and conduct is not relevant to the case – and they will not want that examined.

    But in this situation, its difficult to see how Peter Ridd wont be allowed to present his full case – after all he is the applicant at risk if his action fails.

  22. ianl8888 June 23, 2018 at 7:36 am #


    > ” … its difficult to see how Peter Ridd wont be allowed to present his full case”

    Yes, difficult perhaps for us.

    Please do not underestimate the law. It has its’ own logic.

    There are many people and groups apart from JCU who want the actual hard science suppressed from public cross-examination.Even if that doesn’t come to be, the MSM will not report it with any honesty, if at all. [So far, the ABC has not deigned to mention the unfolding situation]. One can hope Jennifer M from here may be able to plug that gap.

    In extremis, JCU may settle of court and perhaps quietly help Peter find another tenured position. In my view, there are many possible ways to frustrate the public will.

  23. Martin Clark June 23, 2018 at 7:00 pm #

    One possible correction to a comment above. The stipulation in a contract of employment that a person may not make public the details of a private censure proceeding was always void. In my experience as an accredited union representative, it was always trotted out, but so was the standard response, eg “I will make this matter public to the extent that I think fit, I will discuss this matter with whoever I wish, and I authorise my representative (eg me) to do the same.” Never had an employer persisting in the demand, as it was an offence under Industrial Relations law, but then, JCU has always had a track record of regarding itself as above the law.

  24. Ian McClintock June 26, 2018 at 9:48 am #

    There are some absolutely fundamental issues, crucial to everyones future, at issue here.

    Prior to ‘The Enlightenment’ those that expressed opinions or offered evidence that was contrary to the views of the (religious or other) powers of the day, were outcast, pilloried or worse.

    As a result freedom and progress were stifled and the vast majority lived in unremitting poverty.

    It was, more than other single factor, the freedom to think and act outside the confines of these restrictive boundaries that has allowed mankind to develop and advance in the remarkable manner that it has during these last few centuries.

    This censuring and termination of Dr Peter Ridd’s employment at JCU is an appalling symptom of a spreading reversion to this previous ‘politically correct’, strict boundary setting order.

    This is unfortunately not just confined to this university but similar travesties occur at many universities, it is often uncritically accepted by much of the media and there are many other unfortunate exemplification’s of this trend right around the world.

    This is especially true of any discussion, debate, evidence or science in relation to the controversial contemporary issue of ‘climate change’, and the many issues that flow from that, but is not limited to it.

    The actions taken by James Cook University in this (and similar matters), are an attack on the whole institution of furthering inquiry, education and knowledge and will do their industry great harm.

    They should hang their heads in shame.


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