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The fight for free speech: a tale of two controversialists

The apparent battle for free speech being played out across our university campuses is difficult to navigate, with many competing viewpoints and intangible ideas at play. The so-called ‘chilling effect’ and other actions allegedly perpetrated by universities to stifle open debate are hard to prove and can often be explained by reference to guidelines and policies: all of which makes it hard to pin down a definitive answer to the question of where we currently stand.

We have heard politicians and academics opine on the subject, but what about the people in the thick of it, the so-called controversial players being silenced?

A case study: the climate change sceptic

“My view is that academic freedom is effectively dead.” And that is essentially how my conversation with Peter Ridd starts.

An ex-JCU professor – and to some, climate change denier – who can blame him for having this view if we are to believe everything that has been written about his battle with JCU. For Ridd, the long and short of this struggle is what he sees as an egregious dismissal over his climate scepticism.

To many news outlets, as well as the Institute of Public Affairs, Ridd’s scepticism about the damage to the Great Barrier Reef has led to the end of a successful academic career. The story began back in 2016 when Ridd spoke to a journalist regarding some pictures of the reef.

“A journalist from the Courier Mail rang me up to ask me something about the reef. I can’t actually even remember what it was; it wasn’t particularly interesting. Quite coincidentally, I’d actually been looking at a couple of photographs, very famous photographs supposedly showing damage to the reef,” he said.

“I gave the journalist some questions that he might ask Professor Terry Hughes (Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies) and whoever else was actually using these photographs, to tease out what quality assurance mechanisms [are used].”

“The journalist actually sent all my questions and the whole thing to Terry Hughes and then he – I presume it was him, I don’t even know – sent it to the university and didn’t like the tone of some of my questions.”

This is the first instance of what JCU describe as Ridd’s ‘un-collegial’ conduct.

“I said, ‘If you ask him this question I think he will wiggle and squirm because he will …’ but they didn’t like me using the term wiggle and squirm. I also said, ‘He’ll wiggle and squirm because he may think that I think that his statements about it are misleading.’ They also didn’t like the word misleading.”

The next incident involved broadcaster Alan Jones and his Sky News show. Ridd had the peer review system in his sights that day.

“I’m making the argument that if you’re just using peer reviewers as your quality assurance mechanisms … then you cannot regard that work as reliable, and if an institution is only using peer review as a quality assurance mechanism, then the work coming out of that institution cannot be reliable.

“I said that the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the work essentially coming out of them couldn’t be trusted because they were only using peer review. They’re [JCU] saying that broke the academic freedom.”

This is where the issue gets contentious. Ridd alleges that he was “given a brown envelope” by his dean, and advised that he should not talk to anyone about the case. Ridd did not acquiesce and according to him, JCU trawled his emails “to find other examples of where I had done naughty things”.

He recounts an instance when, prior to a talk at the Sydney Institute, his speech was heavily vetted and PowerPoint slides were thrown out by JCU. “Now that’s a breach of academic freedom, if there is one,” he says.

“They can read your emails. They can force you to be confidential, which means that … well they think they can, that’s what we’re fighting in court. They can then make it so that you can’t even seek help. If I hadn’t got that IPA help on that original letter I’m certain I would have been fired last August.”

And this where we find ourselves now: Ridd is out of a job because – according to JCU Deputy Vice-Chancellor Iain Gordon – he broke the code of conduct and now awaits a new court date to decide his fate.

I mention the two recent Guardian articles written about him, one in which Professor Gordon says that Ridd “had transgressed that code of conduct that we would expect any member of our staff to adhere to”.

“What I want him to explain is precisely what way did I break the code of conduct? Not just say, ‘Well he’s said things’. You ring him up and ask him, ‘Exactly what did he do or say that broke the code of conduct?’” he says in exasperation.

Campus Review tried to put this to Gordon and received this reply from a JCU spokesperson:

“Intellectual freedom comes also with responsibilities. No one would expect that it would cloak or provide immunity from conduct that amounts to bullying, harassment, vilification, discrimination or which otherwise attacks the personal integrity of individuals or an organisation. It does not excuse conduct that damages the reputation of JCU staff or key stakeholders. As with all workplaces, JCU employees are expected to maintain appropriate professional and ethical standards when engaging in intellectual freedom.”

“JCU will not comment on Dr Ridd’s legal proceedings, other than to say that they are being vigorously defended,” said the spokesperson.

Bumping heads with the brass is nothing new for Ridd. A perennial agitator, he just about stops short of blaming financial blowback as JCU’s reason for giving him the boot. In the end he thinks he was just too much trouble. “I think they think that, ‘This guy’s just out of control. He’s saying things that are just ridiculous’.

“This is not the first, second or third time. This is like the 10th time that I’ve been in trouble with the university,” he says.

“They just looked at this, and they thought, ‘He’s been a troublemaker in the past, not just on this, but on education matters’.

“I was responsible for a parliamentary inquiry in 2013 to change the way we do assessment in Queensland. I could talk about that. That was very unpopular with the university higher-ups.”

A change in the power structure at institutions as well as policy are other reasons Ridd cites for his troubles.

“In the last 10 years the way that the universities are run by the administrators with no input from the professoriate, that’s the big thing,” he says.

“Of course, these sorts of official procedures are quite a recent thing, these very formal processes of misconduct. When I got into trouble, say in 1996 or something, there was none of these sorts of procedures.

“If you look at the way universities are run now, the professors are not important people. They don’t have any power like they did 20 years ago. They can’t dictate what’s going on. It’s very top-down, and like a company.”

Isolation has been a problem for Ridd (he says ex-colleagues have been told not to contact him) and aside from union backing, Ridd’s cause has mainly been championed by those in conservative circles as they wage war on what they see as politically correct, leftist agendas in universities.

Does Ridd worry that his scientifically based opinion is being co-opted by the right for their own ideological ends?

“Do I worry? Yeah, a little bit… but I’ll tell you what worries me more,  I would like to see more support from the left.

“Look, on other things people would regard me as on the right. So, on things like … freedom of speech I think the left has lost the plot. I’m with Tony Abbott on the Ramsay Centre, for instance.

“I do think we have massive problems with our universities with things on gender and multiculturalism. I would side with the right more than the left on those things without any doubt.”

As he awaits a new court date and ponders a life outside academia, Ridd remains defiant. He’s confident he can win and get his job back.

He seems to genuinely love teaching and to hear him tell it, he is very well regarded for it. “I was often put in front of big first year classes with students who weren’t necessarily wanting to learn physics, but I was put in front of them because I’m a good teacher and I’m a good researcher.”

Ridd does have some advice for academics everywhere.

“If I win my case are other academics going to look at that and say, ‘Oh Peter Ridd won his case, isn’t that wonderful? I can now say whatever I like without any fear of being persecuted by the university’?”

“It’s much better to not even go close to what I call ‘the cliff edge’ and just stay safe and make sure you don’t say anything that’s possibly going to be controversial and upset the powers that be.”

A case study: the wrongly accused

Backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not a popular line on this side of the world. Yet this is what Dr Tim Anderson, senior lecturer in the department of Political Economy at USYD does, ferociously. A vocal activist, wrongly accused and imprisoned on terrorism charges in the 70’s, Anderson would be a prime candidate if an institution wanted to crack down on free speech.

“They never have, never once [have they] done that,” he says when asked if USYD or UTS before that have ever asked him, point blank, to be quiet.

“You’d think that they would because this goes back at least four years. I think the first time was when I came back from Syria four years ago and the Murdoch media did a big personal attack on me. But the university … found a way out of that because I just made sure I was on leave when I was over there.”

For Anderson it is not a matter of what he says, it’s the ire that his comments and actions provoke from the media that concerns the universities.

“It’s really just the publicity,” he says, and he recalls a furore a few years back that provoked the intervention of then education minister, Christopher Pyne.

“He made the argument about the university having to focus on maximising its revenue and so on. And linking it specifically to the fact that any sort of scandal is going to affect your revenue and universities had to work together to try and not damage their reputation and their capacity to raise private revenue… In other words, using the commercialisation of education as an argument for the universities not to get involved in controversy basically.”

This is the larger issue at play for Anderson: Australian universities’ proclivity to court funding above all else. The issue of tenure and full-time versus causal employment also comes to the fore and is a large part of the reason he feels free to be himself.

“I’ve got tenure and I’m permanent, so I don’t have to worry about that,” he says.

“Precarious employment at the university certainly put a constraint on [free speech]. There’s also people who want to get brownie points and research funds and get promoted and so on.

“Those who are going to create money and prestige in an entrepreneurial way, they’re the sort of people, typically these days, that get promoted to professor level. I’m sorry to say it but it’s true. I’ve seen a lot of examples of it.”

Financial pressure is regularly passed on from institution to academic Anderson claims, and this, he believes, stifles free speech. Like Peter Ridd’s claims of sloppily peer reviewed work, Anderson believes that perverse incentives to publish encourages people to “proliferate a lot of fairly poorly considered, tame sort of publications”.

One way to combat this would be to consider free and open access to scholarly work, although even this would not “tame” the huge beast that is academic journals.

So, is it too late to turn things around at Australian Universities?

“It’s not too late,” Anderson says.

“You can do some little initiatives to keep a debate going. But I think at the root of it, the nature of this corporate university in Australia is a dead weight on a lot of freedom of speech. Because it’s pushing, particularly young people, to publish in areas that they might not otherwise want to be in.

“You can do things like creating alternative journals to encourage people to write in areas which are not commercially attractive, for example.”

In the end it is quite simple for Anderson. Even pre-tenure he felt free to express himself, to be himself.

“I didn’t want to write things that someone else wanted, basically. I wanted to write the things that I want to write about,” he says proudly.

“What’s the point of academia unless… [they want] be there because they do want to investigate things of interest to them and express things.

“Maybe it prevented me getting promoted. It did, actually, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t really what I wanted.”

Legal advice

In this series we’ve now heard from Union reps, academics, controversial academics and students, but what is the bottom line for universities from a legal standpoint? Should they be worried about the ramifications of what their staff say?

“I think it is quite right that they are concerned, but the difficulty is, how do you find a balance between having formal policies in place that try and restrict the liability of the university, and try and minimise the occurrences of it happening?”

This is the view of practising barrister and lecturer from UTS faculty of law Geoff Holland. He contends that defamation suits are an intuition’s main worry – students defaming teachers and vice versa – however, unis are only potentially liable when they act as publisher of materials.

“The liability of the university would generally be limited to those circumstances where they were the publisher,” he says.

“The problem now is amplified by the fact that, typically, lectures are at least audio recorded, if not video recorded. That, then, again brings up the question of the university’s liability… But once it gets into a recording that’s distributed by the university, or through any of its channels, they then become a publisher.”

This can then affect what academics decide to teach “but also where they allow the classroom discussions to go”, and Holland remembers a time where an unhappy student took transcripts of what was being said in his class and passed these on to a politician.

In a case such as this, one must be very careful, as Holland believes that the only defence would be that what was said was “a fair comment, or an honest opinion. But they’re both extremely difficult defences to establish in defamation law.”

And here again we face the dreaded ‘chilling effect’. According to Holland, defamation law is notoriously harsh here in Australia especially when it comes to free speech. And defamation is an “extremely complex and expensive action”, so as an academic or when advising his clients, he often encounters times when people will shy away from a topic in order to stay safe.

Aside from defamation, Holland points to potential liability if an ‘adverse reference’ is given as, again, ‘fair comment’ must be proven.

But what really worries Holland is the recent introduction of stricter anti-terror laws.

“I think that, if you look at the anti-terror laws that have been introduced over the last 16 years, [you can see] the chilling effect that they’ve had on academics’ ability to research … and it also has a chilling effect on what academics are prepared to teach and talk about. So, defamation certainly is a problem, but I don’t think it’s what most academics see as being the biggest threat to their freedom of speech, or academic freedom.”

Whether there is a free speech problem in this country or not is hard to tell, and is well and truly open to a variety of interpretations. One thing is for sure, this issue is not going anywhere and has a lot of academics worried.

It would stand to reason that in order to retain academic integrity we must endeavour to enable academics to feel free to pursue topics and subjects that may make some feel uneasy.

In the end most would agree that the pursuit of academic truth makes for a healthy society.

As JS Mill put it in On Liberty:

“All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.

“We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”


Click below to read the other articles in this series.

The fight for free speech: the battle for universities

The fight for free speech: the neurodiversity case

The fight for free speech: the culturally diverse case



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