A professor’s decision to sanction a student for expressing scepticism about COVID-19 vaccines has been struck down by the Supreme Court of New South Wales in Australia.
The judgement comes as Australian health practitioners continue to face heavy scrutiny over comments or social media posts that do not align with medical orthodoxy around COVID-19.
In October 2021, Leanne Hunt, a senior lecturer at the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Western Sydney University, cancelled a work placement for nursing student and plaintiff Nera Thiab after hospital coordinators reported her views to the university.
Without the work placement, Thiab would be unable to graduate.
During orientation at the St. George Hospital on Aug. 30, 2021, she had a conversation with nurse educator Sui Reardon, who ended up reporting her for allegedly “spreading misinformation” about vaccines, not complying with public health orders, and saying that “Dr. Kerry Chant was wrong”—Chant was the chief health officer of New South Wales during the pandemic and made numerous high-profile appearances.
Thiab’s placement required her to be vaccinated for certain roles in Intensive Care. However, when it was revealed she had yet to receive the jab, her placement was cancelled. She also expressed reluctance to receive regular swabs to test for COVID-19.
Thiab later did get fully vaccinated, and on the strength of this, she was allocated another placement. However, the student struck up another conversation where she again expressed her views on COVID-19 vaccination.
Initially, coordinators were happy for her to continue while being monitored, but once Hunt learned of what happened, she again cancelled her placement and brought disciplinary proceedings. Thiab was told she needed to apologise and complete a 1,500-word reflection statement before she could be reinstated.
“It is clear to me that you have yet to understand your position as a future [registered nurse] and have not taken on board the incident from St. George Hospital documented below,” according to an email from the senior lecturer to Thiab. “Based on this, I have decided to terminate your placement. This incident will be escalated as a misconduct, and you will meet with the deputy dean regarding this matter.”
Thiab launched a legal action against the University of Western Sydney over the matter, arguing she should not be discriminated against over her “religious or political affiliations, views or beliefs.”
In response, the university’s lawyers claimed Thiab had contravened the Code of Conduct and position statement from the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia.
According to the Code of Conduct, nurses were to avoid expressing personal beliefs that could exploit or influence patients.
Under the position statement, the Board had warned against practitioners “promoting anti-vaccination statements to patients and the public via social media which contradict the best available scientific evidence.”
Further, nurses found breaching their professional obligations or publishing “anti-vaccination material” deemed to be “false, misleading, or deceptive” could be subject to prosecution by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency.
Justice Guy Parker found in Thiab’s favour on a number of matters.
The student’s conversations were with fellow professional staff and not with patients or the general public. Further, he said claiming Thiab breached the position statement on social media was “strange,” given nurses or nursing students were unlikely to have huge online followings.
“Provided that nurses do not identify themselves as such in posting to social media, it seems difficult to accept that [the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia] would have any basis for regulating such statements,” he wrote in his judgement on June 10.
Parker also noted that the Code of Conduct required nurses to act on the “best scientific evidence” and that there was nothing wrong with questioning or being doubtful of current ideas.
“To question the scientific evidence for the safety of a vaccine, so long as it is done rationally, could hardly, if ever, be regarded as contravening this requirement. Nor would pointing to the possibility of long term effects or the possibility of adverse effects in some clinical situations,” he wrote.
Parker said that even though COVID-19 vaccines had been administered to millions of individuals, it was too soon for the long-term effects to be “exhaustively investigated.”
The judge was also critical of Hunt’s handling of the matter and not properly investigating Thiab.
“It was not Ms. Thiab’s actual conduct which concerned [university staff]. Rather, they thought that she held anti-vaxxer beliefs and that those beliefs were undesirable in nursing practice. Once they had reached these conclusions, they apparently considered it unnecessary to investigate precisely what she had said and done.
“No doubt Ms. Hunt and [Deputy Dean Leeane] Heaton would say that if Ms. Thiab had anti-vaxxer beliefs, there was a risk that she would act on them in her dealings with patients. On the evidence, this was an insulting misjudgment of Ms. Thiab’s professionalism.”
Parker said that his judgement did not prevent universities from making academic judgements on the work of their students.
“Creationists who answer questions in a palaeontology exam by quoting the Bible will not be able to complain if the university declines to award them degrees,” he said.
The judge also noted that it was best to have left Thiab’s case to the hospital to handle like it originally planned. He ordered the university to reverse its decision to cancel Thiab’s placements.
Meanwhile, the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency told The Epoch Times it had no comment on the matter.
Medical practitioners in Australia have faced heavy restrictions over what they can or cannot say regarding COVID-19 vaccines and public health orders.
Lawyer Peter Fam revealed that he had spoken with “hundreds of doctors” over the issue.
“If a doctor read one of the thousands of peer-reviewed papers that have examined the adverse events that stem from the COVID vaccines, and a patient asked them, ‘Hey, I’ve read one of these studies, and I’m worried about receiving this vaccine, can you give me some advice?’—the guidelines from [the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency] restricts what the doctor is allowed to say,” Fam previously told The Epoch Times.
Some examples of the agency’s enforcement include the suspension of an anaesthetist in September 2021 after two “anonymous complaints” were lodged regarding his social media activity.
Dr. Paul Oosterhuis, a medical practitioner of 30 years, revealed in an online petition that he had posted content regarding early treatments against COVID-19 and had questioned the efficacy of lockdowns and PCR tests.