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$1.2 Million awarded for Professor’s sacking in a win for academic freedom

Professor Ridd, the former head of the Physics department of James Cook University (JCU), was found to be unlawfully dismissed by JCU over criticism of prominent climate change research.

In 2015, Professor Ridd told a journalist that JCU needed to “check their facts before they spin their story” as “bad science” and misleading photos were were being circulated about climate change and its effect on the Great Barrier Reef.

Professor Ridd was sacked as he was found to have breached JCU’s code of conduct.

Justice Vasta found that the university’s code of conduct (which stipulates that staff are not to jeopardise the integrity or standing of the university or its reputation) was “subordinate” to an intellectual freedom clause in its 2013 enterprise agreement. Professor Ridd was awarded more than $1.2 million for multiple agreement breaches under the Fair Work Act.

Here was a summary of Justice Vasta’s findings:

  1. 17 misconduct findings as well as many censures, confidentially, speech and “no satire” directions enacted by the university were all found unlawful;
  2. JCU made a “fundamental error” in assuming that the code of conduct took precedents over JCU’s commitment to intellectual freedom in Clause 14 of the enterprise agreement; and
  3. Justice Vasta noted that it “may not always be possible to act collegiately when diametrically opposed views clash in the search for truth”.

National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has supported the finding whilst they do not support Professor Ridd’s views on climate change, they do believe it is crucial to “support his rights to academic freedom”.

Full case: Ridd v James Cook University [2019] FCCA 997