Peter Ridd at Parliament
Peter Ridd at Parliament

Professor’s unfair dismissal saga could go to High Court

EMBATTLED Queensland professor Peter Ridd is understood to be considering a High Court challenge after James Cook University won an appeal against his $1.2 million unfair dismissal case.

Dr Ridd was sacked from his job of almost 30 years with the Townsville-based university in May, 2018 after he publicly criticised what he described as a lack of quality assurance and misleading, deficient and sensationalist Great Barrier Reef research being produced by the university.

In September, the Federal Circuit Court ordered JCU to pay more than $1.2 million in damages and penalties, finding the university had unlawfully contravened its enterprise agreement 13 times including by censuring and sacking the professor.

But the university today won an appeal against the decision with the full bench of the Federal Court allowing the appeal and setting aside Federal Circuit Court Judge Salvatore Vasta's September ruling.

In their decision, the bench comprising Justice John Griffiths, Justice Darryl Rangiah and Justice Sarah Derrington said the question for them to decide was whether the Enterprise Agreement gave Professor Ridd the right to express his professional opinions in whatever manner he chose, unconstrained by the behavioural standards imposed by the Code of Conduct, provided his conduct did not harass, vilify, bully or intimidate.

They found the Enterprise Agreement did not allow it and therefore that the termination of his employment did not contravene the Fair Work Act.

At trial, Professor Ridd argued that he was exercising his right to intellectual freedom in accordance with the Enterprise Agreement.

Justice Rangiah recommended the case be remitted to the Federal Circuit Court for a new hearing upon the same evidence but with particular reference to the issue of whether JCU's common law right as an employer to give lawful and reasonable directions to an employee concerning confidentiality provided an alternative basis to one of the Confidentiality Directions clauses.

But Justices Griffith and Derrington disagreed saying there was no basis for remitting a new hearing on the issue on whether confidentiality directions given to Dr Ridd were reasonable at common law, saying the issue was never contested by Dr Ridd.

"It is well settled that a party is bound by the way in which the party conducts its case at trial," they wrote.

Dr Peter Ridd outside Parliament House in Canberra.
Dr Peter Ridd outside Parliament House in Canberra.

The Institute of Public Affairs, which has publicly supported Dr Ridd throughout the legal battle, said the court's decision was a "devastating blow" against freedom of speech.

"We understand that Dr Ridd is now considering his legal options in relation to a challenge in the High Court of Australia," IPA Director of Policy Gideon Rozner said.

"If he does decide to take up that fight, the IPA, as well as thousands of mainstream Australians, will continue to support his fight for freedom of speech on climate change."

The IPA also called for the government to intervene.

"This judgement is a devastating blow against mainstream Australians, against freedom of speech and against freedom of speech on climate change," Mr Rozner said.

"Alarmingly, this decision shows that contractual provisions guaranteeing intellectual freedom do not protect academics against censorship by university administrators.

"The time has come for the Morrison Government to intervene."

Mr Rozner said there was a "crisis of free speech" at Australian universities.

"James Cook University has engaged some of the most expensive legal representation in the country to stifle the free speech of one of its own staff, despite crying poor about university funding in the wake of coronavirus," he said

"It creates a massive chilling effect for any academic engaging in public debate in Australia."


Originally published as Professor's unfair dismissal saga could go to High Court