Intellectual freedom at universities must be protected

Chris Merritt                 12 May 2022

Published in the Australian Newspaper

In October last year when the High Court handed down a short, unanimous decision in Peter Ridd’s case, it was a tragic outcome for a world class professor of physics who tried to defend his right to engage in robust professional discourse – no matter who took offence.

After 27 years at James Cook University, Ridd had failed to overturn his dismissal. Officially, James Cook University won this case. But it’s a pyrrhic victory.

The university was left with a big legal bill and a judgment that identified its improper attempts to silence an academic who questioned the rigour of other scientists.

The High Court broke with normal practice and refused to order Ridd to pay the university’s costs. But James Cook University lost something far more important that money: the reputation of this institution has been trashed.

The world has been left with the impression that this university did not understand the principle that lies at the heart of the scientific method: when searching for truth, robust debate is more important than professional courtesy and collegiality.

So to describe this university as a winner does not capture the full impact of what happened.

The High Court’s ruling falls into two parts: the first is a defeat for one man based on the peculiar circumstances of the case and the court’s even stranger form of reasoning. That aspect of Ridd’s case is best viewed not simply as an aberration, but wrong.

From Ridd’s perspective it was utterly unjust. On the substantive issue of academic freedom, the court’s judgment shows he was right and the university wrong when it tried to silence his criticism of what he considered shoddy science.

Yet these wrongdoers still managed to salvage victory after the court used a form of reasoning that was right out of Kafka: Ridd had failed to respect the confidentiality of an improper disciplinary process that targeted his legitimate right to engage in robust professional discourse.

That form of reasoning is less than persuasive and will eventually be seen for what it is: an embarrassment that sits uneasily with the rest of the ruling.

If the next federal government builds on this foundation, the real winners will be future generations – not just of academics but of all those who benefit from academic rigour.

This part of the ruling serves as a warning to university bureaucrats. The nation’s highest court is united on the importance of intellectual freedom and seems likely to side with academics should this issue again come before the court.

That, of course, assumes that other academics will have the fortitude and resources to follow Ridd’s example and fight for the right to speak their mind. That is quite an assumption.

In the real world, it would be a rare soul who would be prepared to risk their career and finances in a fight over an issue of principle. That is why the next federal government has an obligation to build on the foundation laid in the second part of this judgment.

The next education minister needs to ensure academics will never again need to resort to private litigation to defend their right to engage in robust professional discourse.

We have already seen how government action can nudge universities in the right direction through the development of a voluntary code on academic freedom by former High Court Chief Justice Robert French.

This code, however, fails to take account of the fact that universities are sensitive to threats to their revenue and the interests of influential stakeholders. Public policy therefore needs to support those who challenge academic orthodoxy, regardless of who takes offence.