Marine scientist loses appeal on sacking over climate change commentary

A North Queensland marine scientist has lost a High Court battle over his sacking from James Cook University as a result of challenging a colleague’s views on climate change and its impacts on the Great Barrier Reef.

The High Court of Australia today unanimously dismissed an appeal by long-serving physicist and academic Dr Peter Ridd, against a judgment of the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia, on the scope of the intellectual freedom protected by a clause of an enterprise agreement with the university.

The court, comprising Chief Justice Susan Kiefel and Justices Stephen Gageler, Patrick Keane, Michelle Gordon and James Edelman, held that the intellectual freedom protected by Dr Ridd’s enterprise agreement was not a general freedom.

The High Court’s judgment summary said Dr Ridd was issued two censures from the university from 2016, and in 2018 his employment was terminated for “serious misconduct under the Enterprise Agreement”.

“Dr Ridd was employed by James Cook University for 27 years,” the court summary said. “From 2016, the University took various disciplinary actions against Dr Ridd for conduct that it concluded breached the University Code of Conduct and constituted misconduct and serious misconduct under the University’s Enterprise Agreement.

“Dr Ridd was issued with two censures (the 2016 Censure and the Final Censure) and, on 2 May 2018, his employment was terminated for serious misconduct under the Enterprise Agreement.”

Dr Ridd had brought proceedings against the university alleging that its actions and the termination of his employment contravened the enterprise agreement and Section 50 of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth).

Dr Ridd did not dispute that the conduct occurred and that it would be misconduct or serious misconduct, but submitted all of his conduct was an exercise of the intellectual freedom protected by Clause 14 of his enterprise agreement, and could not be a serious breach of the code of conduct.

The High Court noted the primary judge in the case, Queensland-based Federal Circuit Court Judge Salvatore Vasta, had concluded that 13 actions taken by the university were contrary to the enterprise agreement, and made a declaration of 13 contraventions of Section 50 of the Fair Work Act, and ordered the payment of compensation and pecuniary penalties.

A majority of the Full Court allowed an appeal and concluded that none of the actions of the university were contrary to the enterprise agreement.

The High Court unanimously dismissed the appeal. The court held that the intellectual freedom protected by clause 14 of the enterprise agreement was not a general freedom of speech.

“The exercise of intellectual freedom was subject to constraints contained in cl.14, including some adopted from the Code of Conduct,” the summary said.

“These constraints upon exercise included respect for the legal rights of others, and required that an expression of disagreement with university decision-making be in accordance with applicable processes, including confidentiality obligations.

“The exercise of intellectual freedom was not constrained by other Code of Conduct undertakings, such as respect or courtesy.

“The 2016 Censure and part of the basis of the Final Censure were unjustified because they related to the expression of honestly held views by Dr Ridd within his academic expertise.

“The Final Censure was justified only insofar as it relied upon expressions of opinion unrelated to Dr Ridd’s academic expertise, and findings that he repeatedly failed to comply with his confidentiality obligations.

“Since Dr Ridd ran his case on an all-or-nothing basis, the termination decision was justified in its reliance upon conduct of Dr Ridd which was the subject of 18 findings of serious misconduct which were not protected by cl.14.”

Part of Dr Ridd’s dispute was over his criticism of linking climate change and polluted water to coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef.

He also made appearances on Australia’s Sky News network and offered commentary to the effect that the Australian Institute of Marine Studies could “no longer be trusted”, and suggested scientists working on the reef were emotionally attached to their subject.

Read the judgment.

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