Academic Freedom VS JCU: Reef Scientist Peter Ridd Vows to Fight On

James Cook University professor Peter Ridd. Picture: Cameron Laird

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

h/t JoNova; Courageous Reef Scientist Peter Ridd needs your help. He plans to continue the battle against James Cook University, to protect the right of Australian professors to be uncollegial, their right to publicly criticise the work of other scientists. Ridd intends to appeal a court judgement which which suggests Academic Freedom as most people understand it is a “historical concept“.

From Peter Ridd’s GoFundMe page;

We have had a setback, but my lawyers have carefully gone over the judgement, and believe there are numerous strong grounds for appeal to the High Court of Australia. We are re-opening the fundraising campaign and will carry on with the legal action.

In the final analysis, I was fired for saying that, because of systemic problems with quality assurance, work from the JCU coral reef centre, which also publishes extensively on climate change, was untrustworthy. I believe what I said was true and have given plenty of published evidence to support the statement. After I was fired, it was proven beyond doubt that I was correct when a group of seven international scientists who audited eight of the major studies from the JCU coral reef centre found them ALL to be 100% wrong. You can’t get much more scientifically untrustworthy than that.

I don’t take the decision to appeal lightly. The financial and emotional costs are high and legal action is fraught with uncertainties. In addition to the $300K Cheryl and I have spent on this case, I have received from you, and about four thousand other people, over $800K. It is matter that rests heavily on my conscience. You have already done your bit, but I’d appreciate if you could share this with other people. I also thank you for your words of support to continue the fight.

We have an excellent chance, but we might lose. There are, however, too many important principles at stake to walk away at this stage.

This case has already demonstrated a major problem with Academic Freedom of Speech at a university. This ultimately affects what academics are prepared to say on controversial topics such as climate change, or the fate of the Great Barrier Reef. The Commonwealth government has already signalled its intention to consider adapting the French Review Model Code to prevent a similar case. This may be the most important long-term implication of the case. Ironically, even if we lose in the High Court, it will demonstrate beyond doubt that the work contracts at universities have the effect of crushing free speech. I have little doubt the Education Minister will have something to say about that once the legal action is over.

So even if we lose the High Court challenge, we still win the ultimate political battle.

Many thanks again for your support


For those interested in the detailed 80 page judgement, this is the link.

Why will this appeal cost so much? Legal action is horrendously expensive especially when going to the highest court in Australia. There is a large amount of legal documentation to be reviewed in order to put forward the strongest arguments backed with case law evidence. Also the Federal Court judgement must be forensically examined.

Note 1: We are just continuing the last gofundme campaign which raised $100K rather than start a brand new campaign. So the counter starts at $100K. The history of all the appeals is below.

Note 2: for overseas people, the High Court is Australia’s highest court. 

Note 3: My lawyers, led by Stuart Wood QC AM, are of the highest calibre and greatly respected in the legal fraternity.

Note 4: If we end up with excess funds, they will be donated to help the cause of academic freedom especially for those who have expressed controversial ideas and then been penalised.

Note 5: For those who would rather make a direct donation by bank transfer, my phone number is in the white pages. Peter RIdd Townsville

Note 6: Apologies to multiple donors if this is a duplicate message

Source: Peter Ridd GoFundMe Page

People who have waded through the entire judgment have dug up some truly eyebrow raising passages.

From JoNova’s website;

The judges reasoning is essentially that academic freedom doesn’t mean freedom in academia because J S Mill, John Locke and Isiah Berlin didn’t have any facebook trolls.

From Gideon Rozner at the IPA:

… this decision has proven how serious the freedom of speech crisis on campus is. You can read the judgment here, but this part in particular – found at paragraph 94 – is absolutely unbelievable:

There is little to be gained in resorting to historical concepts and definitions of academic freedom. Whatever the concept once meant, it has evolved to take into account contemporary circumstances which present a challenge to it, including the internet, social media and trolling, none of which informed the view of persons such as J S Mill, John Locke, Isaiah Berlin and others who have written on the topic.

The judges argue that academic freedom is indispensable to universities, but is dispensable enough to toss to the wind. The right of Professors to speak is now determined by students who are demanding safe spaces where their favourite delusions can hide. The judges admit they are in uncharted territory.

Australian law is now set by teenage twitter mobs.

The court went on to quote a passage from an academic textbook that endorses the view that intellectual freedom is an outdated concept:

Academic freedom plays an indispensable role in fulfilling the mission of the university… But a host of new challenges have arisen in recent years in response to the changing norms and expectations of the university. With the increasing role of the Internet in research, the rise of social media in both professional and extramural exchanges, and student demands for accommodations such as content warnings and safe spaces, the parameters of, and challenges to, academic freedom often leave us in unchartered territory.

Source: JoNova

If scientists no longer enjoy academic freedom, if they risk termination for making a public comment the University Chancellor or Dean does not support, then they are no longer free to challenge or condemn pseudoscience. Scientific truth will subordinated to other considerations.

If this judgement is allowed to stand it could affect more than Australia. Sometimes courts reference judgements made in similar cases in other jurisdictions, even other nations, when searching for an applicable precedent. Next time a dean or chancellor challenges a US or British professor on the grounds the professors public comments violated their safe space, a court judge looking for applicable precedent could very well cite the Ridd case as the reason for their decision.

Please provide a donation to help Peter Ridd defend the right of academics to speak their minds, without having to check whether their department head or university dean or chancellor or students approve of their views.

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