Intellectual and academic freedom upheld by High Court in Peter Ridd decision

National Tertiary Education Union

The High Court of Australia has endorsed the key principles of academic and intellectual freedom, despite finding James Cook University was within its right to terminate the employment of Dr Peter Ridd.

Dr Ridd was issued with two censures by James Cook University and in 2018 his employment was terminated for serious misconduct under the Enterprise Agreement.

Dr Ridd fought the University, arguing his conduct was an exercise of the intellectual freedom protected by cl 14 of the Enterprise Agreement.

In its judgement of Ridd v James Cook University [2021] HCA 32, delivered today, the Court found: “The 2016 Censure and part of the basis of the Final Censure were unjustified because they related to the expression of honestly held views by Dr Ridd within his academic expertise.”

It also found “intellectual freedom is not qualified by a requirement to afford respect and courtesy in the manner of its exercise.”

NTEU General Secretary Matthew McGowan said “As the High Court found, in relation to the first censure and part of the final censure issued by James Cook University, Dr Ridd was exercising his legitimate rights to academic freedom.

“It can therefore be concluded James Cook University should never have taken disciplinary action against Dr Ridd in the first place,” said Mr McGowan.

“It is disappointing Dr Ridd had to take this matter to the High Court for this to be reinforced.

“The High Court’s findings demonstrate the only real protections for academic freedom in Australia are in the enterprise agreements negotiated by the NTEU.

“Enterprise agreements are the only effective legal remedy to protect academic and intellectual freedom.

“We reassert the NTEU’s commitment to academic freedom, even where its expression contains statements that are controversial or unpopular.

“Academic staff must have the right to engage in robust scientific, political and academic debates without fear of retribution, otherwise universities will cease to be worthy of the title.”

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