Australian Marine Geophysicist Loses Battle for Academic Free Speech

By Rebecca Zhu
Rebecca Zhu
Rebecca Zhu
October 12, 2021 Updated: October 12, 2021

Marine geophysicist and Great Barrier Reef (GBR) expert Peter Ridd has lost his appeal to the Australian High Court, which determined that his sacking from James Cook University (JCU) was not a violation of his right to intellectual freedom.

Ridd was fired in 2018 after he questioned the quality and reliability assurance processes of his colleagues in their coral research, and called the Australian Institute of Marine Science and other GBR scientific institutions “untrustworthy” in an interview with the media.

Unlike many of his peers, Ridd did not believe the GBR was in any danger of dying out due to climate change and said the coral ecosystem was one of the most adaptable ecosystems in the world to rising temperatures.

The legal fight was seen as a test of Australia’s academic freedom, and whether academics are able to freely criticise and question people and institutions they disagree with.

“It is with a heavy heart that I inform you that we have lost the appeal in the High Court,” Ridd wrote in a post on Facebook. “We lost, in my opinion, because JCU’s work contract, under which I was employed, effectively kills academic freedom of speech—and the contract is effectively the law.”

“So, JCU’s actions were technically legal. But it was, in my opinion, never right, proper, decent, moral or in line with public expectations of how a university should behave.”

Great Barrier Reef
Assorted reef fish swim above a staghorn coral colony as it grows on the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Cairns, Australia on Oct. 25, 2019. (Lucas Jackson/REUTERS)

In April 2019, Ridd won his initial case and was awarded $1.2 million (U.S.$800,000) in compensation, a decision that was overturned by the Federal Court of Australia and upheld today by the High Court, Australia’s highest court.

Ridd said despite the comments costing him his job, career, and over $300,000 (U.S.$220,000) in legal fees, it was “worth the battle,” which he believes was more important than the result.

“This is just a small battle in a much bigger war. It was a battle which we had to have and, in retrospect, lose,” Ridd said. “Decent people and governments can see the immense problem we have. The universities are not our friends. Only when the problem is recognised will public pressure force a solution.”

The Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) said they were dismayed at the High Court’s judgement.

“This decision proves Australia’s universities are in crisis and a culture of censorship is overtaking Australia,” IPA Executive Director John Roskam said. “Our institutions increasingly want to control what Australians are allowed to say and what they can read and hear.”

Ridd said the failure of the legal action demonstrates that further legislation is required to ensure universities “behave properly,” especially under public funding.

“The Commonwealth government introduced excellent legislation in parliament early this year, partly in response to our legal case, to bolster academic freedom of speech,” Ridd said, referring to the French model code that has been forcefully implemented into every Australian university to ensure greater protections of free speech.

“It is an excellent step in the right direction,” Ridd said.

Rebecca Zhu
Rebecca Zhu