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December 2021

High Court finds academic’s dismissal was not unlawful

High Court finds academic’s dismissal was not unlawful

The Case

Ridd v James Cook University (2021)

James Cook University (JCU) employed Dr Ridd as an academic. Dr Ridd was a climate-change denier, and he was openly criticised throughout the media, research institutions, various studies and other colleagues about his climate change work. Dr Ridd also breached confidentiality and admonished disciplinary action JCU was taking against him. Dr Ridd’s actions ultimately led to JCU terminating his employment for serious misconduct for breaching confidentiality and its code of conduct.

Dr Ridd argued his actions were mere exercises of intellectual freedoms, which were permitted under the JCU enterprise agreement. JCU argued the code of conduct was incorporated into the JCU enterprise agreement and so Dr Ridd’s expressions of intellectual freedoms were constrained by the code’s requirement to treat others with “respect and courtesy”.

At first instance, the Federal Circuit Court found in favour of Dr Ridd, and awarded him $1,094,214.47 in compensation. However, the Full Court of the Federal Court upheld JCU’s appeal. Dr Ridd then appealed to the High Court.

The Verdict

The High Court dismissed the appeal and held:

  • while Dr Ridd did have the protection of intellectual freedom, this did not equate to a general freedom of speech;
  • that any opinions expressed by Dr Ridd needed to be honest and within his area of academic competence;
  • the only restrictions upon the intellectual freedom clause in the JCU enterprise agreement were those contained in the clause itself, which was not constrained by a need to treat others with “respect and courtesy”; and
  • the only conduct that was protected by intellectual freedom was Dr Ridd’s academic criticisms, not the misconduct he had engaged in by breaching confidentiality.

While Dr Ridd could not be censured for his honestly held views (which were within his academic expertise), his employment could be terminated on other grounds that did not relate to Dr Ridd exercising intellectual freedom.

The Lessons

This case demonstrates the importance of carefully interpreting enterprise agreements and their interaction with policies, legislation and other industrial instruments. It is also important to recognise that while intellectual freedom within one’s academic expertise cannot be constrained, it does not equate to a right to freedom of speech.

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