A return to sanity for disclosure class actions

Chris Merritt                 7 January 2021

Published in the Australian Newspaper

The snowflake bureaucrats running James Cook University should make the most of their victory. They might have downed Peter Ridd but they are about to face the blowtorch.

This university has turned Ridd into a martyr for academic freedom, not just in this country but internationally. His scandalous treatment has the potential to mark one of the great turning points for intellectual freedom.

This affair will do immense damage to the university’s reputation, harming its ability to attract the best academics — those who believe that scientific method exists in order to rock the boat, challenge orthodoxies and reveal the truth, regardless of who takes offence.

Science needs troublemakers like Ridd, but JCU has just told every potential recruit that timidity and good manners are valued more highly than blunt attempts to expose an absence of rigour.

Imposing courtesy is what parents do around the dinner table. In the world of science — or any workplace, for that matter — this case shows that vague limits on expression are far too easily manipulated.

Proponents of flawed ideas are bound to take offence when their work is denigrated.

But so what?

Universities should be the last place where bureaucratic rules put limits on those debates. Academic work that cannot withstand a demolition job, even a discourteous demolition job — was never much good in the first place.

JCU might have just saved itself $1.2m that would otherwise have been paid to Ridd as compensation for his dismissal, but it might soon become clear this high-priced appeal was an act of self-harm.

Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan has little option but to protect robust debate at the nation’s universities.

He could do a lot worse than consider the views of Ridd himself. In April last year, after his initial victory in court, Ridd wrote an important piece for this newspaper on how to protect academic freedom.

He backed a free-speech code for universities recommended by former High Court chief justice Robert French. Unlike French, Ridd wanted it made mandatory. JCU’s has proved him right.

What JCU did to Ridd was described last year by him as “an example of how a university can crush academic freedom while pretending to support it”.

The code of conduct at the heart of JCU’s victory was “so vague and nebulous that almost any heated intellectual debate will result in the code being broken. I suspect even an angry stare or a huff of disgust would offend a protagonist enough to break the code,” he wrote.

Academic freedom cannot be eroded. Tehan needs to dust off the French report and give it teeth.