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Freedom of speech debate erupts after ‘Cash Cows’ program

This week the National Tertiary Education Union called on Murdoch University to guarantee the jobs of three of its staff who spoke out during the Four Corners ‘Cash Cows’ episode on foreign fee-paying students.

The call was prompted after Murdoch’s Chancellor David Flanagan refused to guarantee the three whistle blowers’ jobs on ABC’s Radio drive program.

NTEU national president Dr Alison Barnes said: “The Union is outraged that the Chancellor, despite being the head of the highest governing body, refused to guarantee the job security of the three academics who chose to speak publicly as part of Monday’s Four Corners program after repeatedly raising concerns internally without success.

“There were serious issues raised in the Four Corners program that we believe have not been adequately addressed by the senior leadership at Murdoch. The Union called for an open and transparent inquiry at Murdoch in September last year, a call which was rejected by Murdoch.”

It remains to be seen whether the three whistleblowers will keep their jobs or whether their conduct will be grounds for dismissal.

Whatever the case may be, it’s the second high-profile case in a month involving a stoush between a university and an academic who works for them. It begs the serious questions: To what extent are academics able to express their professional thoughts on a topic and to whom are they permitted to speak? And how must they speak to others?

Late last month controversial marine physicist Dr Peter Ridd won his unfair dismissal case against James Cook University in the Federal Circuit Court of Australia. While the case is complex to explain here, Judge Salvatore Vasta found that Dr Ridd’s breaches of JCU’s Code of Conduct were secondary to his right to express his intellectual or academic freedom, in this case, his pursuit of scientific truth.

Dr Ridd expects the university will appeal the decision. In a letter sent to staff, JCU vice chancellor Professor Sandra Harding criticised the judgement and mentioned there was no common law case on which to base the judgement.

“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.

“Much has been published about Dr Ridd being disciplined for his views on climate change and quality assurance.

“The University determined that Dr Ridd engaged in serious misconduct, including denigrating the university and its employees and breaching confidentiality directions regarding disciplinary measures. That conduct was a serious breach of the Code of Conduct and that is why the university dismissed him as an employee.

“Dr Ridd was not sacked because of his scientific views. Peter Ridd was never gagged or silenced about his scientific views, a matter which was admitted during the court trial.”

Professor Harding also highlighted Dr Ridd’s unsuccessful interim reinstatement application handed down by Judge Jarrett in the Federal Circuit Court in June 2018.

After the judgement Dr Ridd told Campus Review that Judge Vasta’s decision was a “diabolical ruling” against the vice chancellor and that he intended to convince the university’s council that the vice chancellor had caused “terrible reputational damage”.

He also reflected on how the case was affecting his personal and professional life.

“We [he and his wife] are okay, because it's getting towards the end of my career… and we’ve got a bit of super coming in from here and there. I'm writing a book, which hopefully will come out in the second half of the year, so there'll be a bit of an income stream there.

“We're okay, that's not the problem. It's just that you want the legal proceedings over, you want your reputation back frankly because I've been done for more than a dozen counts of serious misconduct, and that's still against me.”

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