It’s out with philosophers John Stuart Mill, John Locke and Isaiah Berlin and it’s in with “the internet, social media and trolling”. According to the majority judgment of the Federal Court of Australia in James Cook University v Ridd handed down on Wednesday, that is.
Peter Ridd was employed by James Cook University for 27 years before his employment was terminated in May 2018 for serious misconduct. At the time Ridd was a physics professor. However, he was not dismissed on any academic or teaching grounds.
Rather, Ridd went down because JCU maintained that he had failed to act “in the collegial and academic spirit” required and had denigrated a fellow staff member by failing to act “with respect and courtesy”. Oh yes, Ridd had also denigrated JCU, the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
In fact, Ridd disagreed on scientific grounds with the views of some fellow academics and some influential organisations about the long-term viability of the Great Barrier Reef.
He maintains that sections of the Great Barrier Reef are in good shape and that coral dies and is reborn as part of the reef’s life. This is inconsistent with the scientific orthodoxy preached by JCU and like-minded organisations.
Announcing the termination in May 2018, Iain Gordon, then JCU’s deputy vice-chancellor, referred not to the quality of Ridd’s teaching and research but to his “manner” and “disrespect”. You see, he had been charged with having “trivialised, satirised or parodied” JCU’s disciplinary processes. Why, Ridd had even sent a private email to a friend dealing with JCU that was headed “for your amusement”. How shocking is that?
It is a long time since there was genuine academic and intellectual freedom in the groves of academe — if this ever existed. The ideals pronounced by John Henry Newman’s 1875 The Idea of a University are essentially utopian. What’s new about the current JCU case is that the curtailment of academic freedom that once prevailed in the social sciences has extended into the physical sciences.
Take Australia, for example. The two big cases of academic freedom in the past half-century involve philosopher Frank Knopfelmacher (1923-95) and physicist Ridd. In 1965 Knopfelmacher, who was a lecturer at the University of Melbourne, was appointed to the position of senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Sydney. The appointment was overturned by the university’s professorial board.
Knopfelmacher’s appointment was strongly supported by David Armstrong, one of Australia’s finest philosophers.
Like Ridd, Knopfelmacher went down because of his irreverent manner and a tendency to criticise colleagues in addition to his unfashionable views. An articulate and well-informed anti-communist, Knopfelmacher upset the leftist fashions of the time with his vehement criticism of the communist regimes in central and eastern Europe (East Germany, the Soviet Union) and Asia (North Korea, China, North Vietnam), and their supporters in the West.
In 1964 Knopfelmacher wrote an article in Twentieth Century magazine criticising the leftist ideology that prevailed in many of Melbourne University’s social science departments. He claimed that left-wing academics discriminated against non-leftists and exercised significant veto powers “in matters of academic preferments and sinecures”.
This accurate comment was used against Knopfelmacher by his opponents on Sydney University’s professional board.
In the half-century since the Knopfelmacher affair, the attack on academic and intellectual freedom has moved into universities as a whole, including the physical sciences. That is Ridd’s problem. JCU appears to have a view that the Great Barrier Reef is dying fast and anyone who disagrees with this orthodoxy, no matter how well qualified, does not have a right to be heard, especially if they are irreverent and outspoken.
In one sense, the Federal Court’s decision in JCU v Ridd turns on the interpretation of the enterprise agreement under which the respondent was employed.
In September last year the Federal Circuit Court (Judge Salvatore Vasta presiding) found that JCU had contravened section 50 of the Fair Work Act by making findings against Ridd, giving him directions with respect to confidentiality and speech along with a “no satire” instruction. All this, the court found, had led to an improper employment termination.
However, the current case is more important than mere industrial relations. The majority — justices John Griffiths and Sarah Derrington — essentially dismissed “historical concepts of academic freedom”.
So the thoughts of Mill, Locke and Berlin are out of date. Griffiths and Derrington instead cited the work of American philosopher Jennifer Lackey concerning the internet and social media. They quoted favourably from the Illinois academic, who has written that the concept of academic freedom has been challenged not only by no-platforming but also by student demands for “content warnings and safe spaces” that “leave us in uncharted territory”.
Newman, originally an Anglican who became a cardinal in the Catholic Church, was a deeply religious man who saw a role for an essentially secular university bestowed with intellectual freedom. But many a modern campus has become an institution that acts in accordance with the notion that “error has no rights”.
This was once the teaching of extreme religious sects. Now it is being put into effect by censorious administrators, academics and students who believe that those with whom they disagree have no right to be heard.
In his dissent, Justice Darryl Rangiah placed much more emphasis on Ridd’s right to intellectual freedom. Rangiah agreed with the majority that the decision of the primary judge contained material errors on industrial law.
However, he said that while the appeal should be allowed, the proceedings should not be dismissed but remitted for a further hearing. Rangiah did not support the majority view that some aspects of Ridd’s conduct cannot be characterised as an exercise in intellectual freedom.
While JCU v Ridd turns primarily on industrial law, it is likely to have the unintended consequence of discouraging academics who are at odds with prevailing fashions in the social and physical sciences from speaking out.
Australian universities need more Knopfelmachers and Ridds — not fewer.