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Dr Peter Ridd in Townsville. Photo: Cameron Laird

JCU unlawfully sacked marine scientist: judge

A judge has ruled that James Cook University’s termination of Dr Peter Ridd’s employment was unlawful.

The marine scientist was dismissed by JCU in May last year. In his view, it was because he “dared to fight the university and speak the truth about science and the Great Barrier Reef”. Per a statement from Professor Iain Gordon, JCU’s deputy vice chancellor in the division of tropical environments and societies, the university said he was sacked “by reason of his repeated refusal to comply with the university Code of Conduct and the repeated disrespect he showed for the University as a senior employee”.

Following judge Salvatore Vasta’s ruling in the Federal Circuit Court of Australia, Ridd took to his GoFundMe Page – through which he raised over $260,000 to fun his legal action – to say he had a “spring in his step”.

“We seem to have won on all counts,” he said. “The next chapter of this saga must now be written by the JCU Council.”

In a lengthy statement released following the verdict, JCU provost Professor Chris Cocklin doubled down on the university’s decisions.

“We disagree with the judgement and we maintain we have not taken issue with Dr Ridd’s nor any other employee’s rights to academic freedom,” Cocklin said.

He added media has not accurately presented facts in the case, creating a narrative that Ridd had been disciplined for his views on climate change and quality assurance.

While his academic freedom was not at issue, how he communicated about others, “denigrated others” and breached confidentiality was, he added.

“Dr Ridd was disciplined for repeated breaches of the same directions given to him over a course of almost two years. Dr Ridd was invited to remove confidential information he placed publicly online and he refused to do so. In court he admitted that he knew it was wrong but did it anyway.

“This included information which identified his work colleagues and publicly promoted the very matters again, for which he had been censured. To protect the individuals, the university asked Dr Ridd to de-identify the references publicly, he again did not do so.

“In fact, during the court trial, for the first time under oath, Dr Ridd admitted to giving The Australian newspaper confidential material, something he sought to conceal from the university until the hearing.”

Among the inappropriate ways Cocklin said Ridd communicated with university employees included calling a supervisor “poison fruit” and suggesting that the university could eat them but if they did “it would hurt” and that he would make sure it hurt.

Cocklin said JCU is “troubled” by the fact the judge “fails to refer to any legal precedent or case law in Australia to support his interpretation of our enterprise agreement, or academic freedom in Australian employment law”.

While Ridd traced his dismissal back to a conversation with a journalist from The Courier Mail during which he suggested questions for director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies Professor, Terry Hughes, “to tease out what quality assurance mechanisms” were being used, and a later stint on Sky News where he targeted the peer review system used by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, he ultimately felt that he was too much trouble for the university.

In an interview with Campus Review last year, Ridd handed down some advice to academics should his case be successful.

“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.”

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2 comments

  1. This article just gives the JCU’s point of view. According to this, the judge must have been really silly, but perhaps there is another side to this story.

  2. Having been suybjected to similar harassment myself from a major University, I am fully aware of how Dr Ridd was victimised under the pretext of inappropraite behaviour forced on him by his insistence on speaking up on particular values he is entitled to speak. His treamtent is widespread and hardly new so its fantastic that a judge has wisely seen that the Unievrsity has acted inapprirately and has done so in a manner which reflects contempt for tehir staff, academic freedom and the values Universities should be adhering to – the corporatosation conduct we are seeing is totally inconsistent with the University mission.

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