Dr Peter Ridd

Statement by James Cook University Provost Professor Chris Cocklin

The Federal Circuit Court today delivered a judgement in favour of Dr Ridd, finding that any action taken by the University, dating back to 2016, was not within the enterprise agreement.

Although the matter was about enterprise agreement interpretation, the judgement does not refer to any case law, nor any authority in Australia to support its position.

We disagree with the judgement and we maintain we have not taken issue with Dr Ridd’s nor any other employee’s rights to academic freedom.

Much has been published about Dr Ridd being disciplined for his views on climate change and quality assurance. We do not agree that the media has accurately reflected the facts in this case.

The University determined that Dr Ridd engaged in serious misconduct, including denigrating the University and its employees and breaching confidentiality directions regarding the disciplinary processes. That conduct was a serious breach of the Code of Conduct and that is why the University dismissed him as an employee.

Dr Ridd was not sacked because of his scientific views. Peter Ridd was never gagged or silenced about his scientific views, a matter which was admitted during the court hearing.

Dr Ridd at all times continued to engage publicly to promote his academic views and was never prevented by the University from doing so. His academic freedom was not at issue while he was an employee of the University. What was in issue, was how to he communicated about others, how he denigrated others and how he breached confidentiality which impacted not only on him, but on others.

We are a University. Within our very DNA is the importance of promoting academic views and collegiate debate.

Dr Ridd was disciplined for repeated breaches of the same directions given to him over a course of almost 2 years. Dr Ridd was invited to remove confidential information he placed publicly on line, and he refused to do so. In court he admitted that he knew it was wrong, but did it anyway.

This included information which identified his work colleagues and publicly promoted the very matters again, for which he had been censured. To protect the individuals, the University asked Dr Ridd to de-identify the references publicly, he again did not do so.

In fact, during the Court trial, for the first time under oath, Dr Ridd admitted to giving The Australian newspaper confidential material, something he sought to conceal from the University until the hearing.

This is not how most employees would conduct themselves. Nor would employees threaten their supervisors that they were “poison fruit ” and that [the University] could eat them but if they did, “it would hurt” and the employee would make sure it hurt.

Threatening your employer and making public confidential matters that are the subject of disciplinary procedures is not how most employees would engage with their employer.

While some may have different views about Dr Ridd’s conduct, the University does not condone any employee publicly denigrating or humiliating their colleagues. Nor does the University condone providing information to the press or soliciting persons to interfere with a disciplinary process. An employer and employee are expected to engage in disciplinary processes, with respect to the rights of each other, and with respect to other persons affected by the process. That is the point of confidentiality directions.

We disagree with the Judge’s comments and are also troubled by the fact that he fails to refer to any legal precedent or case law in Australia to support his interpretation of our enterprise agreement, or academic freedom in Australian employment law. The judgement reflects views, which are not supported in any way by any case law or legal precedent The Judge has not attempted to do so in his judgement in preferring an interpretation that disregards the Code of Conduct or confidentiality obligations which exist both in the enterprise agreement and also at law.

It received little press last year when Dr Ridd was unsuccessful in his interim reinstatement application. Justice Jarrett of the Federal Circuit Court on 18 June 2018 found that Dr Ridd had a very weak case and made clear that he understood it was not what Dr Ridd was saying, but the manner of how he said it.

However, significantly, Justice Jarrett also outlined when refusing relief to Dr Ridd at the time, that the University was being taken to court, and had at all times acted reasonably.

While the University is considering its options on this matter, I would like to leave you with a quote from Justice Jarrett’s decision last year which reflects the extent to which JCU has gone to attempt to be conciliatory and support proper interpretation and process, rather than publication of matters in the press. Dr Ridd refused these options, as reflected by the Judge in rejecting his interim reinstatement application:

The applicant would have maintained his employment; the University would have maintained what it saw as the integrity of its disciplinary processes, pending a determination about those issues from the Court. However, the applicant declined to enter into those undertakings and there was no alternative suggestion. The offer of the undertakings was repeated on 14 March, 2018 but, again, the applicant declined to give them.

Those matters are significant, in my view, because there was an opportunity for the applicant to avoid the very prejudice that he now says he is subjected by reason of the University’s conduct. He was given the opportunity, in a reasonable way in my view, to have the relevant matters adjudicated upon and, in the meantime, the status quo preserved.

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