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Cancel culture hits the High Court

Physicist Peter Ridd was fired after he publicly criticised his colleague’s research on the Great Barrier Reef, but what started as an employment dispute has become a test case on climate denial and cancel culture.

A case currently before the High Court, involving one academic’s controversial views on climate, could have significant ramifications for freedom of speech in Australia.

Physicist Peter Ridd was fired after he publicly criticised his colleague’s research on the Great Barrier Reef, but what started as an employment dispute has become a test case on climate denial and cancel culture.

Today, writer for The Saturday Paper Kieran Pender on Peter Ridd’s day in court and what the outcome could mean for academic freedom.

 

Guest: Writer for The Saturday Paper Kieran Pender.

Show Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

A case currently before the High Court - involving one academic’s controversial views on climate - could have significant ramifications for freedom of speech in Australia.

Physicist Peter Ridd was fired after he publicly criticised his colleague’s research on the Great Barrier Reef - but what started as an employment dispute has become a test case on climate denial and cancel culture.

Today, writer for The Saturday Paper Keiran Pender on Peter Ridd’s day in court.. and what the outcome could mean for academic freedom.

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:

Kieran, why did you decide to cover this story? What was it about it that interested you?

KEIRAN:

On the face of it, this is a story of one man: a scientist from Queensland called Peter Ridd. But when you delve deeper, it's about so much more. It starts with this scientist who’s a bit of a climate change denier and has views about the Great Barrier Reef that run contrary to the scientific consensus, but is led into a much broader issue about freedom of speech, academic freedom and how our universities operate today in this corporate world, when so much managerial control over academics and whether that is intruding on the core goal of universities. 

We live in a time where more and more people are suffering professional consequences for their beliefs on all sides of the political spectrum, so in a sense, it's an important story for everyone. 

RUBY:

Mm. So could you begin by telling me a bit more about Peter Ridd, this scientist who is in the middle of this story?

KEIRAN:

Peter Ridd is a physicist. He's been at the James Cook University up in Queensland for a very long time. For a while, he was the head of their Marine Geophysical Laboratory, and he has views on climate change and on the Great Barrier Reef that diverge from scientific consensus.

So in 2015, his troubles really started. 

Archival tape -- Peter Ridd:

“You see, these things only became a problem when scientists popped up on the scene. Scientists popped up on the scene in the 1960s. And lo and behold, we find the crown of thorns starfish were killing the reef, and then the sediment from the cane farms was killing the reef, and then the nutrients from the cattle farms was killing the reef…”

KEIRAN:

He began to criticise very publicly the work of his colleagues who were finding in their research that there was a link between climate change and the Great Barrier Reef being at risk. And we've had a number of coral bleaching events. We've had, you know, what's been portrayed in the science as a really existential threat to the health of the Great Barrier Reef. And Ridd disagrees.
 

Archival tape -- Peter Ridd:

“Six or seven years ago we had a big cyclone that wiped out almost all the coral in the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef. And yet now it’s almost all totally grown back so we’ve now got three times as much coral in the southern part of the Great Barrier Reef than what we had before…“

KEIRAN:

So he sent an email to a News Corp journalist saying that these academics should check their facts before they spin their story.
 

Archival tape -- Peter Ridd:

“Bleaching definitely occurs in hot weather, but Terry Hughes is on record in saying that ‘bleaching is a new phenomena, it never happened before the 1980s’. It is an absurdity. We just discovered it to science in the 1980s…”

KEIRAN:

He went on Sky News alongside Alan Jones and Peta Credlin and said that we can no longer trust the scientific organisation.

Archival tape -- Alan Jones:

“So corals have learnt a thing or two about dealing with temperature swings over 200 million years. Eh? Alarmist talk.”

Archival tape -- Peter Ridd:

“Exactly, and the problem is that we can no longer rely on our science institutions and this is a  very sad thing…”

KEIRAN:

So he was frequently disparaging the work of his colleagues. He said that they weren't objective because they were so emotionally attached to the reef. 

Archival tape -- Peter Ridd:

“We have a system which doesn’t reliably give us good science. Science is about multiple-checking, replication of stuff, and a lot of this stuff we’re seeing is one group of scientists who maybe for all the best reasons are getting stuff wrong…”

KEIRAN:

His view and when I saw him in Canberra this week, he said to me, the reef is in good health, it's not under threat, which really diverges from the mainstream scientific view.

RUBY:

So he publicly said some pretty incendiary things about climate change and while doing that, also criticised some of his colleagues. So what happened next? 

KEIRAN:

These remarks began an academic disciplinary enquiry at James Cook University, into whether he'd breached the university's code of conduct. Now, at the beginning of that, Ridd was told by the university, he had to keep quiet, he had to maintain confidentiality around the investigations. That's not that unusual in workplace investigations, but he was not happy about that. 

So he published all of the documents relating to the investigation on his website. He set up a Go Fund Me campaign…

Archival tape -- Peter Ridd:

“In an era of dangerous groupthink in science, academic freedom and scientific integrity is increasingly under attack…”   

KEIRAN:

To support his battle with the university, and as of today, that's raised almost three quarters of a million dollars.

Archival tape -- Peter Ridd:

“These conditions are unacceptable and it flies in the face of my instincts for truth and honesty, and my academic freedom. Can I count on your support?”

KEIRAN:

Ultimately, the university found that almost 20 allegations of misconduct against Ridd were sustained and they fired him in April 2018.

He sued for a breach of the enterprise agreement that governed his employment with the university. He won at first instance in the Federal Circuit Court, and he was awarded over a million dollars in damages. But the university appealed. It went to the federal court to a bench of three judges who by two to one found for the university and overturned the appeal. And finally, three years later, the dispute has come to the high court and it was in Canberra this week.

RUBY:

What is this case about, Kieran?

KEIRAN:

At the heart of this case is Ridd being dismissed for fairly provocative and critical statements about the research of his colleagues.

So for a number of people, that really goes to the heart of academic freedom. We've had, for example, the Institute of Public Affairs, a right wing think tank, they've been extremely critical of James Cook University’s dismissal of Ridd.

Archival tape -- Gideon Rozner:

“This goes beyond just a debate about the Great Barrier Reef, it goes beyond just climate change, this goes to the heart about what our universities should stand for…”

KEIRAN:

Gideon Rozner, who's the policy director at the IPA, told me that this case will be a watershed moment for the free speech crisis at Australian universities. He also said that this was just one example of the way in which the censorious cancel culture has hollowed out our universities. 

Archival tape -- Gideon Rozner:

“They are using taxpayer dollars and taxpayer resources to shut down dissenting views, that is not only anti-freedom of speech, it’s antithetical to everything universities should stand for…”  

KEIRAN:

But the IPA is not the only ones being concerned about this situation. I've had a number of academics speak to me, express their concerns about someone being fired, essentially for expressing their research perspective.

RUBY:

Can you tell me more about what those academics are saying to you? How worried are they?

KEIRAN:

One of the people I spoke to was Professor Adrienne Stone at the University of Melbourne. She's really a global expert on academic freedom, recently published a book on the topic. And she told me that university codes of conduct have incorporated standards effectively from the private sector that are just not appropriate for the university sector. Those codes of conduct that are really widespread elsewhere and have limitations on behaviour, on criticism, they are acting as a caveat on academic freedom, even though that freedom is so important.

So while it may be unpopular to defend the free speech of climate deniers, I think there is a lot of credence to the idea that Peter Ridd's case raises really troubling issues and goes to a deeply important principle that's at stake. 

Adrienne Stone, for example, in a recent law review article, said that Reed's termination contravened critical and widely accepted principles of academic freedom. Beyond this particular case, it seems that unless the decision is overturned on appeal, similar university codes of conduct are or may become significant threats to academic freedom. 

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Kieran, you've been following the case of Peter Ridd, who was fired from his job after making remarks about his colleagues' work on climate change. He's been appealing that decision for the last few years, and he's ended up in the high court just a few days ago. You were there in court. What happened? 

KEIRAN:

The courtroom was packed, I think is the first thing to say. It's very rare that such a, you know, ultimately a narrow employment law issue gained such attention. But there was a protest outside the court. 

A number of politicians were there, the IPA were there. And not only did they fill courtroom one where it was being heard, they also filled an overflow room next door. We had the barrister for Peter Ridd, Stuart Wood QC, on his feet making the case for academic freedom. He said to the court that intellectual freedom is an ancient principle foundational to a university.

Now, it was interesting because the five judge bench fired questions back at Wood. They seemed very sceptical. But when it came time for Bret Walker SC, the university's barrister to make his case, they were similarly questioning, similarly giving nothing away. So it's pretty hard to read what might happen next. 

Ultimately, the issue here is how far that academic freedom right extends. Both Wood for Ridd and Bret Walker for the university accept that he had that right, but they disagreed over how far that right extends, especially when it comes to criticising the research of colleagues.

RUBY:

Mm. So what you're saying is essentially this case in the high court, it's going to come down to how wide the definition is of academic freedom and whether that includes someone, someone like Peter Ridd being able to publicly criticise his colleagues? 

KEIRAN:

That's exactly correct. And that's where this irony is really in this case, that on one hand it's so narrow, but on the other hand, it's going to have such broad implications in the initial judgement. In the federal circuit court, Judge Vasta observed that this trial was purely and simply about the proper construction of a clause in an enterprise agreement. But how the High Court interprets that clause will reverberate across the higher education sector.

So we have that clause that says on one hand, academic freedom is important and is protected, but on the other hand, has this code of conduct in the enterprise agreement that limits the ability of academics, for example, to be highly critical of their colleagues, how those that interplay is interpreted by the high court, whether the high court finds that Peter Ridd was permitted to publicly criticise his colleagues so stridently or whether they find that the university was justified in terminating Peter Ridd will ultimately chart the course for the future of academic freedom in Australia.

RUBY:

Mm so it sounds like the stakes are pretty high then, not only for Peter Ridd, but for other academics at other universities across Australia and therefore the reputation of our university sector? 

KEIRAN:

The stakes are really high, particularly in the broader political landscape. So the Coalition for a number of years now has been waging a bit of a culture war on campuses. The Education Minister, Alan Tudge, has been very critical of universities. 

Archival tape -- Alan Tudge:

“If you can't have freedom of expression, how do you pursue knowledge creation? If you can't have freedom of academic inquiry, how can you possibly seek full truth, which is what universities are supposed to be about.”

KEIRAN:

He's recently warned them that if they don't adopt a model free speech code, he might consider legislative intervention. 

Archival tape -- Alan Tudge:

“As I said, I've lost patience. I want to see it done. It's such an important value which underpins the very essence of a university. And if they don't, we’ll legislate it later this year.”

KEIRAN:

So a loss for Peter Ridd could encourage further legislative intrusion into universities. And a win would really serve as a signal that academic freedom is protected in Australian universities and will be protected by a high court. Professor Stone told me that these questions have barely ever reached the court before, and so at least it's reassuring that the high court has taken the case.

As Stone said to me, this is a really important question for the future of research in Australian universities and the future, really, of having an open society.

RUBY:

And the other question that comes to mind, though, Kieran, is that this is a person, a scientist who publicly represents a university talking about climate change in a way that the majority of scientists would say is incorrect. And UNESCO, they just recently recommended that the Great Barrier Reef be placed on a list of World Heritage sites that are “in danger”. So should someone like Peter Ridd be able to return to his job? Because I think there is this added responsibility when you're an academic or a scientist to be accurate on an issue as big as climate change in the public debate.

KEIRAN:

This case was made particularly timely because of the recent UNESCO recommendation. And it certainly shows how divergent Reid's view is from the mainstream. But whatever I or anyone else might think about Ridd's views, I certainly believe the rest of the climate science that the reef is in danger. Whatever you think of his views, he is an academic and he is a researcher and he's been researching these issues for a very long time. And so I think there is a fairly compelling view that he should be able to express his views without losing his job.

Sometimes these issues are framed around bullying and harassment but Peter Ridd, while strident in his criticisms, was ultimately debating other very senior academics. There's no question here of power imbalance. These were academics having very robust views about differences in terms of research. But ultimately, that was at the heart of what this was. This was a debate about what is right and what is wrong in the climate science. You know, I think on one hand, it is very, very attractive to say that views like this shouldn't be aired. But if we start silencing academics, there's a risk that we silence more than Peter Ridd, and that is a very slippery slope indeed.

RUBY:

Kieran, thank you so much for your time. 

KEIRAN:

Thanks so much.

[Advertisement]

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:

Also in the news today,

NSW recorded 18 new locally acquired cases of Covid-19 yesterday, as Greater Sydney and its surrounds remain in a two week lockdown. 

Western Australia recorded one new case of Covid-19, sparking new restrictions including mandatory masks in all public indoor venues, and on public transport in Perth and Peel. 

In the Northern Territory, the Chief Minister Michael Gunner has announced the lockdown for Darwin, Palmerston and Litchfield has been extended, after one new positive case was announced. Before this current outbreak, the NT had never recorded a single community transmission of Covid-19. 

And from midnight last night, South Australia introduced a number of new restrictions despite recording no cases of Covid-19.


I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow. 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

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