ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AUSTRALIAN
On Wednesday, the High Court has the opportunity to defend academic freedom in Australian universities, but to do so it must explicitly reject a lower-court ruling that this vital principle is more or less obsolete. What it decides will be a marker for the state of our civilisation.
On that day, the court will hear arguments in the dispute between James Cook University and Peter Ridd, the professor and marine geophysicist it sacked in 2018.
Ridd was dismissed after disagreeing with some of his colleagues regarding their claims about damage to the Great Barrier Reef allegedly caused by climate change and other factors such as farm run-off, including in a chapter contributed to the Institute of Public Affairs’ essay collection Climate Change: The Facts 2017.
Last year the Federal Court raised the stakes when, in upholding an appeal by JCU against an earlier decision, the majority judgment purported to dismiss the entire tradition of free inquiry on which the modern university is founded. As such, the case has become much more than a mere contractual dispute. It raises important questions about how the modern university understands its mission and, moreover, how our society understands the concept of knowledge itself.
Originally published in the Autumn 2021 edition of the IPA Review.
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’.