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The Peter Ridd case is too important to be left to the courts

By Graham Young - posted Friday, 2 July 2021

A lot rides on the case of Ridd v JCU, which was heard last Wednesday, June 23, 2021, in the High Court of Australia.

The case is to determine whether an academic can criticise other academics at the same institution for their academic work without breaching the university's Code of Conduct and being liable to be sacked.

If Ridd loses, then, without remedial action by the government, academics become mere cyphers of their universities, unable to strenuously critique the work of their colleagues. Instead of fearless seekers after the truth, their role will be as little more than publicists for their respective institutions, and whatever work is produced by their colleagues, good, bad, or indifferent.


The ills arising from this are not trivial. If Ridd is correct that significant portions of the research on the Great Barrier Reef done by James Cook University researchers is sloppy, and not objective, then JCU is playing a central role in efforts by UNESCO, and perhaps even the Chinese government, to destroy the reputation of the reef by listing it as endangered.

If UNESCO lists the reef as endangered, we can expect the North Queensland region to suffer. While academics will continue to receive significant research grants (the Great Barrier Reef Foundation alone has half a billion to distribute), and the university board will bask in the glory, anyone in tourism, or connected to it, will lose.

There may also be flow-on effects to other industries, like cane farming for example, which may be forced to adopt expensive new agricultural practices, but with no return in terms of the health of the reef, and a decrease in their ability to farm profitably.

If you were going to establish the right of academic freedom in Australia's universities, the High Court would not be your first recourse.

In the first place, it is fearsomely expensive. To get to this position Ridd has had to crowdfund $1.5 million, as well as tipping in some of his own money. The university will face a similar bill, and a potential payout for wrongful dismissal.

In the second place the success of the enterprise depends on the shaky foundation of the performance of two legal champions as judged by the bench of the High Court, and the actual legal points, while determinative of the case, may only tangentially touch on the real matters of principle.


Stuart Wood AM QC for Ridd practices in industrial law while Bret Walker SC for JCU has a broader practice, most recently successfully defending Cardinal Pell in the High Court. They're both eminent, but is this form of settling a dispute much different from duelling where chance, as well as skill, can deliver the outcome?

The major argument is essentially whether the Enterprise Agreement, an instrument of federal law, takes precedence over the Code of Conduct, an instrument of Queensland state law.

Academic freedom, as well as intellectual freedom, are guaranteed in the EA, as is the right to participate in the decision-making processes of the university.

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This article was first published in The Spectator.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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