Author: Stuart Andrews
Date: 24 April 2019
There are fundamental problems with the recent decision of the Federal Circuit Court of Australia concerning the actions of Peter Ridd that resulted in his dismissal by James Cook University.
One such problem is the failure of the court to address what vilification means.
Our dictionaries tell us that to vilify means to disparage, denigrate, belittle or insult.
No staff of a university should be subjected to vilifying behaviour by other staff. It is therefore not surprising that clause 14 of the James Cook University enterprise agreement places a specific obligation on a staff member not to vilify others when exercising the right of intellectual freedom under that clause.
How is it, then, that the court found on the one hand that Professor Ridd’s email response to a student mocking the fact that a senior academic colleague was giving a keynote presentation at a conference involved him speaking “in a pejorative way, about the qualifications of (his colleague) to talk at such a conference” and that it “may even be denigrating of” his colleague, yet on the other hand concluded that the email was not vilifying?
To denigrate is to vilify. The court also stated, not in keeping with the requirements for the exercise of intellectual freedom under clause 14, that: “In the search for truth, it is an unfortunate consequence that some people may feel denigrated …”
Quite separately, how is it that the court concluded that the offensive statement was in fact an exercise of intellectual freedom at all?
It is hard to understand how comments to a student mocking an academic colleague giving a conference presentation have got anything to do with the exercise of intellectual freedom as described in clause 14 (or more broadly, for that matter).
Similarly, it is difficult to understand how Ridd’s statement in an email to another student that “I have certainly offended some sensitive but powerful and ruthless egos” amounts to “expressing opinions about the operations of JCU” or “expressing disagreement with the processes used to make decisions”, as found by the court (using descriptions of what intellectual freedom extends to under clause 14).
The court was at pains to make it clear that this case is not about the concepts of freedom of speech and intellectual freedom at a universal level. Rather, the singular focus of the court was said to be on the proper interpretation of the words used in clause 14 of the James Cook University enterprise agreement.
That being the case, protection to the professor should not have been afforded under clause 14 for statements he made that did not amount to the exercise of intellectual freedom within the meaning of that clause, or for any statements he made, whether or not they were an exercise of intellectual freedom, that involved vilification of others.
The exercise of intellectual freedom should not give anyone an unfettered right to denigrate or offend. This is a fundamental expectation of civil discourse.
The Australian Higher Education Industrial Association is the employer association for the higher education sector, registered under the Federal Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Act 2009. Our membership currently comprises 32 universities.
AHEIA provides a range of learning and development services, including a suite of workplace relations training programs, leadership development programs and wellbeing programs specifically designed for university staff. The Association designs bespoke and customised programs for ‘in-house’ delivery as well as offering training workshops throughout the year in all mainland State capital cities.