In 2018, marine scientist Dr Peter Ridd was sacked from his professorship at James Cook University (JCU) for being critical of some of the university’s research. Few readers will be unfamiliar with the outlines of the dispute, and the support for his appeal(s) against the dismissal has been heartening. Only as the case has progressed, however, has it become clear exactly what is at stake: nothing less than the future of intellectual inquiry and free speech, particularly in the university.
The case arose from Ridd publicly questioning findings (including those by other professors at JCU) purporting to show a link between climate change and coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef. Ridd, who has made a career studying the reef, has long argued it is in good health, notwithstanding any changes to the climate and other purported environmental threats. His argument is encapsulated in ‘The Extraordinary Resilience of Great Barrier Reef Corals, and Problems with Policy Science’, his contribution to the IPA’s Climate Change: The Facts 2017.
After his dismissal, Ridd sued his former employers in the Federal Circuit Court on the grounds his comments were protected by his employment contract and was awarded $1.2 million in damages, but this was overturned on appeal to the full court of the Federal Court where two of the three judges found for the University.
In February 2021, the High Court granted Ridd special leave to appeal, and the arguments and outcomes in our highest court will have important implications not just for science, but for the issues of free speech, intellectual inquiry, and the decline of universities so often raised in the broader ‘culture wars’.
As we will see, the court inelegantly wades into an historical and philosophical dispute about the nature of knowledge itself, between, on one side, individualists such as Mill, Locke and Isaiah Berlin, and the more sociological contemporary school, which they associate with Jennifer Lackey, Professor of Philosophy at Northwestern University in Illinois, USA.
THE RIDD CASE
Formally, the issue in the case is the scope of the right to ‘intellectual freedom’ guaranteed to Ridd by his contract with the university. JCU has argued this right is limited by Ridd’s obligation to adhere to the university’s code of conduct, which requires collegiality and prohibits harassment, vilification, bullying and intimidation. It is clear, though, that the contract imposes duties on the university as well, including the “protection and promotion of intellectual freedom”, which includes giving staff the right to “pursue critical and open inquiry” and “participate in public debate and express opinions about issues and ideas related to their respective fields of competence”. Moreover, the same clause gives all university staff “the right to express unpopular or controversial views” and connects the right and restrictions to “the responsibilities of staff to support JCU as a place of independent learning and thought where ideas may be put forward and opinion expressed freely”.
While the case turns on the question of how Ridd’s contract and code of conduct are to be interpreted, it is more than merely a workplace dispute. The words to be interpreted go to the very question of the role of universities in modern society, and—even more broadly—to our society’s established concept of knowledge itself. The majority judgement in the appeal at the Federal Court raised the stakes when it determined the “historical concepts” of intellectual freedom, academic freedom, and free inquiry have nothing to do with how Ridd’s contract should be interpreted.
It argued that because of technological changes such as the internet and social media and associated changes in behaviour (like “trolling”) and norms like “content warnings and safe spaces”, it is inappropriate to read the university’s guarantee of intellectual freedom as consistent with “the view of persons such as JS Mill, John Locke, Isaiah Berlin and others who have written on the topic”. In effect, the full court of the Federal Court determined that such are the qualitative differences between our contemporary times and previous eras that there is nothing to be learned from the past.
Two questions arise here. First, whether the majority is right to set aside the historic understanding of the university, or whether some of the world’s most famous minds may yet have something to teach us. Second, and more broadly, we must ask what the court’s radical historicism suggests about our universities, and, by extension, our entire institutional order. By historicism, I mean the idea that truth is relative to the time and place at which it is established, such that it can be obsolesced not just by new discoveries but merely by changing circumstances.
THE TRADITION OF INTELLECTUAL FREEDOM
Let us then look at and consider the philosophers named in the court’s judgment.
The tradition of intellectual freedom as we understand it today (at least until the Federal Court’s purported paradigm shift) is a product of the secularisation of the university during the Enlightenment. The late Sir Roger Scruton (1944-2020) recounts that while academics had enjoyed some measure of freedom of inquiry throughout the Middle Ages, this freedom was severely curtailed by the religious character of the universities, which had as part of their mission the suppression and punishment of heresy. The turning point for universities is typically considered to be the foundation, in 1809, of the University of Berlin by Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) on the principles of improving society through free inquiry (though Humboldt was building on earlier developments, including the work of the English philosopher John Locke).
Freedom to experiment is the foundation of individual and social development.
More generally, the freedom is associated with empiricism—the idea that we produce knowledge through experimentation. This is the shared commitment that links Locke, Mill, and Berlin; and informs their comments about education. To the extent that our universities remain committed to empiricism, these thinkers should remain relevant to their mission, and so if deemed not relevant we must wonder whether the mission of the university has changed, and if so, in which direction.
THE LINE OF THOUGHT DISMISSED BY THE FEDERAL COURT
John Locke (1632-1704) is one of the key figures of the Enlightenment, and his Second Treatise of Government (1690) is one of the founding texts of liberalism. But the majority judgement is likely not referring to Locke’s later political writings but to his more extensive work in epistemology (the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge). Locke was one of the pioneers of empiricism: the approach that all knowledge is derived from sense-experience, and which emphasises evidence, especially as discovered in experiments.
This connection is clearly drawn in Locke’s works on education. In Some Thoughts Concerning Education, Locke addresses the question of how to raise children to be rational adults, arguing for the importance of various formative experiences, from physical exercise to learning a trade and travel. Perhaps somewhat unusually for the time it was written (1693), Locke argues for the value of play for children and against subjecting them to too severe a discipline; this is because his interest is in cultivating children’s innate capacity for reason, which is the foundation of virtue and which is developed through experience. More relevant to university-aged students, in Of the Conduct of the Understanding (1706), Locke emphasises that each person’s own reasoning will only take him or her so far:
We see only in part, and we know only in part… This might alert you, however proud you are of your own basic abilities, to how useful it is to talk and consult with others…
He goes on to criticise those who, in their intellectual lives inhabit “some little creek” and dare not “venture out into the great ocean of knowledge”, and who fail to realise that the way to knowledge is to “dig and search for it, as for gold and hidden treasure” amid “much earth and rubbish”. Because, for Locke, the individual who “exercises the freedom of his reason and understanding” will see that his or her “mind will be strengthened… capacity enlarged… faculties improved”.
Like Locke, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) argues that the freedom to experiment is the foundation of individual and social development. It is also worth noting that Mill’s direct inspiration for his views on individuality and education is Humboldt. On Liberty (1859) starts with an epigram from the German and he quotes him approvingly several times throughout, most importantly on the theme of the individual developing “the human faculties” of reason and judgement only via “freedom, and a variety of situations”. Mill famously extends this idea to various arguments in favour of freedom of speech, which he links directly to freedom of thought, and which boils down to the idea that even when we are certain we have the truth, we still benefit by hearing opposing views, which improves our understanding of our own positions.
For Mill, freedom of speech should be institutionalised across society.
A critical point relevant to the Federal Court’s concerns is Mill’s view that freedom of speech should be institutionalised across society. He argues that without positive support for dissenting views, the conjunction of democracy, scientific administration, universal education, “improvements in the media”, migration, and commerce will produce “a general similarity among mankind” and thereby prevent and erase gains made by individual experimentation and free discussion. Mill goes on to argue for a competitive system of education, in which schools and universities are granted full academic freedom by the total withdrawal of the state from the field. This is to ensure a diversity of educational sources to match the desire for diversity among individuals.
At the individual level, Mill is just as strident. In speaking of “judging” others he suggests “It would be well, indeed, if this good office were much more freely rendered than the common notions of politeness at present permit”. While this was perhaps a response to the strictures of Victorian England, it is nonetheless clear that for Mill part of the value of freedom of speech lies in the right to robustly criticise and judge others. Given a key aspect of the University’s charges against Peter Ridd relate to his criticisms of the work of Professor Terry Hughes, Director of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at JCU, this is another critical point.
Unlike Locke and (arguably) Mill, Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) does not believe that the empiricist project—or the Enlightenment project more generally—will ever produce a kind of universal scientific morality. For Berlin, the Russian-Jewish émigré who became the quintessential Oxford Don, reasonable people can arrive at different values that are incommensurable, meaning they cannot be traded off or converted one to the other.
Berlin’s views on education are deeply informed by this value pluralism.
In his 1975 essay ‘General Education’, Berlin argues:
It is not necessary to believe that all knowledge always makes men happier or freer or morally better… it need be accepted only, firstly that the discovery of the truth is a great good in itself; and secondly, that the only real remedy for the evil consequences, whether of ignorance or of knowledge, is more knowledge…
Berlin’s main concern is to promote a kind of moderate scepticism that might steer modernity away from the danger that its signature features—technological progress and the related disenchantment of the world—might be turned against it, either by the forces of, on one hand, rationalism and central planning and the “engineering of human souls”, or on the other, an irrational reaction to that phenomenon, which reasserts social control by altogether denigrating individual reason. To head off this possibility Berlin argues that teachers (meaning academics) need to communicate their learning in a simpler, more accessible fashion, which is both the test of whether the teacher understands the material and the only way people might work to unify their knowledge across areas.
THE CONTINUED RELEVANCE OF THE TRADITION
So now we better understand just what the Federal Court’s majority dismisses when it purports to jettison the tradition of intellectual freedom. The common elements across those thinkers named as dispensable are:
- the connection between academic freedom and free inquiry,
- the connection between free inquiry and individual development, and
- the connection between individual development and societal flourishing. The foundation of this model is the individual’s capacity to learn about the world through experience. The two judges in their majority decision hold that this model bears no relevance to the working conditions of academics today.
Moreover, as we can see even from the brief survey of just the three thinkers named in the judgment, it has the support of thinkers whose substantive conclusions on key questions are often opposed.
Mill’s sensitivity to the problem of conformity is easily applied to ‘cancel culture’.
We could go on, to consider figures such as David Hume (1711-1776), who argues that the role of the academic is to fairly consider the merits of different arguments and help them to be presented in their strongest and clearest forms. Or that of Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), who seeks to establish in the university a place for free inquiry and the transmission of his Catholic faith; or more recently the American legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin (1931-2013), who argues the role of the university is to inculcate “ethical individualism”, by which he means something similar to Mill’s idea of individuality, but which in the university setting requires academics not only to engage in the search for the truth but to uphold a duty to say what they consider to be true. This is now a diverse set, comprising, in various combinations, natural rights theorists and utilitarians, monists and pluralists, Protestants and Catholics, and liberals and conservatives—yet all share a basic commitment to the importance of free inquiry, which forms the foundation of academic freedom.
The majority judgment invites us to believe that all of this learning has been superseded by the “challenges” presented by the internet, social media, and trolling. But some of these concerns, if not the technologies themselves, are directly anticipated by the tradition. The connection Locke draws between reason and virtue is surely more valuable, not less, in this voluble and volatile age. Mill’s sensitivity to the problem of conformity is easily applied to social media shaming and the so-called ‘cancel culture’, and he makes a valuable contribution to any debate about how much social pressure is too much. And Berlin’s argument for the mission of the university even where, perhaps especially where, we think pluralism is irreducible seems only to have become more relevant as the number of voices and platforms has proliferated.
THE FEDERAL COURT’S RADICALISM
Given all the above, one may ask whether JCU is really in the business of discovering, accumulating, and transmitting knowledge as our civilisation has typically understood it, because that freedom and that business have previously been considered inseparable. The Federal Court has an answer to this question, and it is here that its radicalism is really laid bare.
In place of the empiricist epistemology of Locke and Mill, or even the value pluralism of Berlin, the Federal Court cites with approval a short essay by Jennifer Lackey, one of the world’s most famous living epistemologists. From this essay, the majority takes the observation that the internet age supersedes historical concepts of intellectual freedom and so on (as quoted above). Reading the essay, it is quite clear the majority took this quote out of context. Moreover, given it was in the introduction to a compilation of essays titled Academic Freedom (Oxford University Press, 2018) and it mentions both Locke and Mill, one might wonder whether that was the full extent of their research on the matter.
Nonetheless, how Lackey’s work differs from that of the dismissed tradition is worth considering. Lackey is known for her work in social epistemology, a research area dedicated to demonstrating the ways in which knowledge is generated or discovered through collective, rather than individual, undertakings. Across her work, Lackey has been concerned to demonstrate that what might be called the epistemic advantage of the individual in respect to his or her own mind is, at least sometimes, unjustified—that the individual, as an individual, does not possess, and cannot access, certain forms or pieces of knowledge.
This shift in the focus of epistemology from the individual to groups implies a shift in how an institution defines and pursues the truth. For example, social epistemology has focused on questions like how democratic bodies can accurately represent the views of constituents, the terms on which a consensus may be reasonably taken as true, and how misinformation prevents accurate group knowledge from emerging. On such a model, institutional rules are not aimed at maximising individual experimentation, but at building consensus among participants—and this may require curtailing individual speech and experimentation. It is natural, then, that the Federal Court sided with the institution’s understanding of the freedom it had promised Ridd, because on this epistemology, the freedom only makes sense in the context of the institution’s prerogatives and the terms on which it facilitates the group pursuit of knowledge.
The Ridd case is not just about intellectual freedom. It is about knowledge.
This idea is, of course, ascendent, and it is useful to have it laid out in terms so bare, even if it has been at the cost of Peter Ridd’s academic career. Clearly the notion that free inquiry only leads to the truth under certain institutional settings is what animates the broader campaign across our elite institutions and society to curtail speech and to punish dissenters. This can be seen in the ever-tightening net of human resources bureaucracy, coordinated online campaigns against speakers of unorthodox views (up to and including the then President of the United States), and weakening state support for freedom of speech.
The Ridd case, then, is not just about a contract, nor is it only about intellectual freedom. It is about knowledge, and whether knowledge is best pursued, and most accurately captured, by individuals or by groups, and it is about whether our concepts retain, or should retain, their historical meanings. It is about whether the grand project of intellectual inquiry outlined by Humboldt in Berlin in 1809 has come to an end after just two centuries. It is about whether our society still thinks that individuals can make discoveries and know things for themselves, or whether the process of learning only takes place within institutions and under their rules.