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Intellectual Freedom: A Win for Free Speech on University Campuses


  • Professor at James Cook University fired for comments criticising fellow colleagues regarding their climate change research and a breach of confidentiality in the disciplinary process.
  • An appeal to the High Court found the University could not terminate the comments made regarding his colleague’s research, but they could for the breach of confidentiality.
  • This is the first time the courts have addressed the importance of “intellectual freedom”.

Professor Peter Ridd was fired from James Cook University (JCU) located in Townsville in 2018 as a result of comments he made criticizing his colleagues work on the impacts of climate change. The allegations made included that his colleague did not properly check their work.

Following this, in the midst of the university disciplinary process, Dr Ridd allegedly violated the confidentiality of the process by telling a group of supporters to write to the vice-chancellor of the school. Therefore, as Dr Ridd breached the University’s code of conduct both through the comments made in relation to his fellow researcher and the breach of confidentiality in the course of his disciplinary proceedings, Dr Ridd was terminated.

Dr Ridd appealed the decision until he reached the High Court who found that the University could not condemn the professor’s beliefs regarding his colleagues as this is deemed to be covered by the “intellectual freedom” clause in his enterprise agreement, however, the University was justified in censuring the professor in relation to the breach of confidentiality.

What Does This Mean?

This decision by the High Court highlights the importance of academic freedom. They found that “intellectual freedom should protect academics’ right to express views, even contrary views, in public within their area of expertise”. The Federal Minister for Education, Alan Tudge, praised the finding of the Court stating that “the only way we progress in society at all is by challenging ideas, debating them, seeking the truth”.

All 41 Australian universities, as of last week, have now aligned free speech with a ‘moral code’ recommended by a government-commissioned review of freedom of speech in Australian higher education providers in 2019. Therefore, as long as respect and courtesy are maintained, academics have the right to express their opinion even if it is contrary to a widely accepted belief. This includes the ability to publicly criticise colleagues’ research.

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This blog is merely general and non-specific information on the subject matter and is not and should not be considered or relied on as legal advice. Coutts is not responsible for any cost, expense, loss or liability whatsoever to this blog, including all or any reliance on this blog or use or application of this blog by you.

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