Comment: Judge in Peter Ridd Case Says Trial Was Not About Climate Science or Freedom of Speech

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Peter Ridd speaking to the Institute of Public Affairs

Sacked Australian scientist and hero of climate science deniers everywhere — Dr. Peter Ridd — has won his case against former employer James Cook University (JCU).

Judge Salvatore Vasta, in Australia’s circuit court, said actions the university took to censure and ultimately fire Ridd were all “unlawful.”

In a long statement, JCU said it was “considering its options” and said it disagreed with the judgment, adding it “does not refer to any case law, nor any authority in Australia to support its position.”

Climate science deniers and right-wing commentators around the globe have been championing the case, helping Ridd to raise AU$260,000 for his legal costs.

As I’ve argued before, Ridd’s supporters have tried to claim he was sacked because of his fringe beliefs on human-caused climate change and his claims that the Great Barrier Reef is in “fantastic shape.”

Since the judgment was published, this trend has continued.

'None of the Above'

While Judge Vasta did have some harsh criticisms of JCU, he went out of his way to be clear about what the trial and his decision were, and were not, about.

He wrote that some had “thought that this trial was about freedom of speech and intellectual freedom” and that media reports had considered “this trial was about silencing persons with controversial or unpopular views.”

Even though those views had been canvassed, wrote Vasta, “this trial was about none of the above.”

Rather, this trial was purely and simply about the proper construction of a clause in an Enterprise Agreement,” he wrote. 

Contrast this with an editorial in The Australian, which said the case had “struck an important blow for academic integrity and freedom.”

Or contrast the judge's comments with the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) that has campaigned heavily alongside Ridd and claimed the academic had won his “battle to speak for science against the Climate Inquisition.” The IPA is a think tank heavily funded by billionnaire mining magnate Gina Rinehart.

Fearmongering about the health of the Great Barrier Reef must now desist,” said the IPA in a media release, despite the judgment having nothing at all to do with marine science.

On Breitbart, right-wing commentator and climate science denialist James Delingpole claimed the “underlying reason” that Ridd was fired was “his refusal to play ball on the subject of the Great Barrier Reef.”

In 2016 and 2017, the World Heritage-listed ocean icon was hit with back-to-back mass coral bleaching caused by rising ocean temperatures. About half the corals died and research has found that the number of new baby corals growing has since plummeted by about 90 percent.

In the interest of full disclosure, in the time since I first started writing about Ridd's case, I've taken a part-time job at an Australian marine conservation charity as a media adviser.

JCU Appeal?

So what now? Ridd wants his old job back, but JCU says it is “considering its options” on the case decided by Judge Vasta.

In an article in the Australian Financial Review, the newspaper’s legal affairs editor Michael Pelly asked in February “Is Salvatore Vasta Australia's worst judge?

Pelly was reviewing what he described as “withering denunciations” in appeal courts of three of Judge Vasta’s findings. Pelly has also reported on the “prospect of a parliamentary inquiry on his fitness to remain on the bench” over concerns about his judgments.

If JCU is considering an appeal, its lawyers may consider that, according to Pelly, Judge Vasta has been “overturned on appeal at least 15 times” since he was appointed in 2015 by then-Attorney General George Brandis, a conservative politician.

In JCU’s response to Vasta's decision, Professor Chris Cocklin wrote: “We disagree with the Judge's comments and are also troubled by the fact that he fails to refer to any legal precedent or case law in Australia to support his interpretation of our enterprise agreement, or academic freedom in Australian employment law. The judgment reflects views, which are not supported in any way by any case law or legal precedent.”

In the judgment, Vasta makes several personal observations, each time prefacing them with disclaimers such as how those views are “not part of the matters that I have to decide.”

For example, Vasta writes that “rather than disciplining Professor Ridd, the better option would have been to provide evidence that would illustrate the errors in what he has said.”

One interpretation could be that it is not up to the university as an institution to make statements against Ridd’s views because they respect his right to intellectual freedom. In any case, academics — including some at JCUhave repeatedly responded to Ridd’s views in the academic literature.

JCU has been at pains to point out that Ridd “was never gagged or silenced about his scientific views,” a matter that, Cocklin said, “was admitted during the court hearing.”

A hearing date for penalties has not yet been set.

For more background on Peter Ridd:

Main image: Screen shot of Peter Ridd speaking at an event hosted by the Institute of Public Affairs

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