Free Speech Icon Free Speech

In Australia, Academic Freedom Case Will Have Far-Reaching Consequences

Sarah Chaffee
Photo: Great Barrier Reef, by FarbenfroheWunderwelt via Flickr (cropped).

Until Covid came along, evolution and climate change were at the top of the heap as controversial issues at the intersection of science and culture. Despite the newcomer, they remain as charged with potential for battle as ever.

That’s, of course, not only in the United States but internationally. In Australia, as I’ve written here before, a prominent professor who critiqued climate change research has been in the spotlight for the past two years. The case, however it turns out, will have profound consequences.

Will Academic Freedom Win Out? 

So, can academics voice controversial viewpoints on scientific topics, or not? 

Peter Ridd, head of the Marine Geophysical Laboratory at James Cook University, published a chapter in the book Climate Change: The Facts 2017. He doubted that the Great Barrier Reef was almost dead due to global warming, and argued as much. Then, he talked about the chapter on TV and his university got wind of it. He was hit with charges of academic misconduct. After very tense interactions with the university and demands he was unwilling to meet, he raised funds to pursue the matter in court. Ridd ended up winning $1.2 million (Australian). Judge Salvatore Vasta offered this endorsement of academic freedom: 

That is why intellectual freedom is so important. It allows academics to express their opinions without fear of reprisals. It allows a Charles Darwin to break free of the constraints of creationism. It allows an Albert Einstein to break free of the constraints of Newtonian physics. It allows the human race to question conventional wisdom in the never-ending search for knowledge and truth. And that, at its core, is what higher learning is about. To suggest otherwise is to ignore why universities were created and why critically focused academics remain central to all that university teaching claims to offer.

Following that decision, the Federal Education Minister requested a model academic freedom and freedom of speech code, which ended up being drafted by a former member of the High Court. 

The Drama Keeps Unfolding

But this July, the court’s decision was overturned by the Federal Court, 2-1. Ridd decided to appeal the case to the High Court — Australia’s highest judicial body. 

I hope the High Court takes the case. Gideon Rozner, director of policy at the Institute of Public Affairs, wrote for The Australian in July:

The Ridd case is much more than a mere workplace relations dispute between an academic and his employer. It is even bigger than a dispute about climate change. It is about the free speech crisis at our universities, and goes to the heart of the ‘cancel culture’ epidemic engulfing the Western world.

A decision in favor of academic freedom would have far-reaching implications for Australian universities, and in particular the scientific establishment. It would echo in other countries, too, including ours.