Australian Court Rejects Dismissed Physicist’s Intellectual Freedom Claim

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Australia’s highest court Wednesday rejected an intellectual freedom claim by a university physicist who was sacked in part for his public claims that scientists exaggerated the damage to the Great Barrier Reef caused by climate change.

Five Australian High Court judges unanimously rejected physicist Peter Ridd’s claim that he was unlawfully dismissed in 2018 by James Cook University in Townsville, a city in the state of Queensland.

The court ruled that the clause in his employment contract that protected his intellectual freedom was not a “free speech in general” clause and did not protect him from being fired for serious breaches of the university’s code of conduct.

Education Secretary Alan Tudge said he was currently soliciting suggestions about the implications of the court’s decision on higher education.

“While I respect the court’s decision, I am concerned that working conditions should not be allowed to have an extremely concerning effect on freedom of speech or academic freedom at our universities,” Tudge said in a statement.

Ridd has worked for the university for 27 years, heads the physics department, and is categorized by ResearchGate, a European commercial social networking site for scientists and researchers, into the top five percent of researchers in the world.

His first criticism came from an email he sent to a journalist in 2015 in which Ridd accused the Great Barrier Reef Marine Parks Authority, which manages the reef, of misusing some scientific data to suggest that the world’s largest coral reef was undergoing severe damage.

Great Barrier Reef in Australia, December 2, 2017. (Kyodo News via AP)

His latest criticism came in a Sky News interview in 2017 in which he criticized two scientific organizations closely linked to the university: the Australian Research Council for Coral Research and the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences.

The university welcomed the court’s decision, which was based on findings of 18 serious violations not covered by the intellectual freedom clause. Ridd’s lawyers declined to comment.

The Institute of Public Affairs, a Melbourne-based conservative think tank that has published Ridd’s views on climate change, said it was disappointed with the court’s decision.

“This decision proves Australian universities are in crisis and a culture of censorship reigns in Australia,” the institute’s executive director John Roskam said in a statement.

UNESCO has recommended that the World Heritage Committee add the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem to its World Heritage list which is in danger, especially due to rising sea temperatures.

The reef experienced significant bleaching due to unusually warm sea temperatures in 2016, 2017 and last year. The bleaching damaged two-thirds of the coral. [ab/uh]

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