An email report from Gideon Rozner of the IPA.
Dear supporter of freedom of speech on climate change
As I write this, the third and final day of the hearing in the Peter Ridd case is nearing its conclusion. It has been an extraordinary few days. For one thing, it has been a genuinely fascinating, edge-of-your-seat legal drama. But more importantly, it has been a test case on basic and vital principles of freedom of speech.
Watch my summary of day three of hearings from the Peter Ridd court case in Brisbane.
The day began with the continuation of the defence’s closing argument, which had started the previous day. From my perspective, it looked like Chris Murdoch QC, acting for JCU, had a difficult time putting his case to Judge Salvatore Vasta yesterday. And it didn’t get much better today.
For one thing, Murdoch found it difficult to justify the clear double standards with which JCU has conducted its disciplinary actions against Peter. As we at the IPA have noted throughout this case, JCU have not only sought to throw the book at Peter for his comments about the quality of the science surrounding the Great Barrier Reef, but have also created a ‘star chamber’ dynamic in which all disciplinary proceedings against him were required to be kept confidential.
But as Judge Vasta – and later Stuart Wood QC – noted, JCU did not apply the same premium on confidentiality when it came to Peter’s email account, which was searched in an invasive effort to dig up further breaches of the staff code of conduct.
Judge Vasta also seemed to take issue with the double standard to which JCU judged Peter’s comments about reef science. Yes, Peter used strong language, but then so did Professor Hughes – the colleague of Peter’s who first complained to the university – in his refutation of Peter’s arguments. As Judge Vasta said:
Its words not followed up by actions. Professor Ridd may see what the university is saying [in relation to the need to be ‘collegiate’] but ask: ‘Do they believe that?’ If they did, there would have been a censure of Professor Hughes [as well].
And then, of course, there was the fact that the confidentiality directions were so draconian that Peter was, for a period, refused permission to discuss the allegations against him with his own wife. Judge Vasta made no secret of what he thought of that:
It’s very difficult to justify the behaviour of the university in telling [Peter] that he can’t talk to his wife. How could that be justified? It can’t be. What [JCU] did was reprehensible.
He noted also that the university never once apologised for the ‘turmoil’ of such a prohibitive gag order.
As a side note, sitting behind me in court was Calum Thwaites, who said g’day to me when the court was in a brief adjournment. As many of you will recall, Calum fought his own battle for free speech some years ago, as a QUT student, he was dragged into a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission under the now infamous section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
I remember following the case closely at the time. I wasn’t working for the IPA then (just a humble rank-and-file member), but I remember how important that particular battle was. It was great to see Calum in court supporting Peter who, like him, decided to fight back in the face of attempts to stifle freedom of speech.
But the highlight of the day for me was when Stuart Wood QC started his closing argument for Peter. It was masterful – not just insofar as it was an impressive legal argument, but also in that it was an impassioned defence of what this case is about – academic freedom, open intellectual inquiry and free speech. Mr Wood went through a wealth of case law, showing that intellectual freedom is a fundamental and inalienable right in academia, that it is an ‘ancient freedom’ going back some 2000 years, and one that has been firmly entrenched in common law.
Unfortunately, at this stage I don’t have a transcript of Stuart’s argument – though I certainly intend to get one. But in the meantime, I want to share with you a few fragments I managed to capture and share earlier today on my Twitter account:
Intellectual freedom is integral to a university. James Cook University didn’t invent intellectual freedom, it has a long and proud history. The defence hasn’t addressed that.
The university is saying that it is an ‘error’ to describe academic freedom as a fundamental right. That is extraordinary.
You cannot fillet out what you say from how you say it, and then say it’s not protected by the academic freedom protections. But that’s what our learned friends [acting for JCU] have tried to do.
If the evolution debates in England in the 19th century had occurred at James Cook University, the university would have censured the evolutionists. This is embarrassing: This university, and what it has done to Professor Ridd.
As I write this, Mr Wood is still on his feet, and is now going line-by-line through the specific allegations that JCU has thrown at Peter in the years for which this saga has been going. Both Mr Wood and Judge Vasta have indicated that this hearing could well continue into the evening.
I’ll still be here, as will the many supporters of Peter – including several IPA members – who have sat in on these hearings for the past few days. There is a feeling in the room that momentum is on our side. And I am personally optimistic about Judge Vasta finding in Peter’s favour.
(That said, it will be some time before we have an outcome. After today’s hearing wraps up, the judge will retire to consider the arguments and evidence, and deliver his decision at a future date.)
But regardless of the outcome, the efforts of many people must be acknowledged. For one thing, we should congratulate Peter, for not going quietly in the face of efforts by JCU to gag him. There is also his outstanding legal team: Stuart Wood QC, Ben Kidston, Ben Jellis, their instructing solicitors at Mahoneys, and also David Forbes, who has acted as the IPA’s independent legal counsel.
And of course, a big thanks must go to the literally thousands of people who have contributed financially to Peter’s legal fighting fund, raising over a quarter of a million dollars in a matter of days. Because of your help, Peter has been able to match the enormous resources of a taxpayer-funded university. It has been a battle of Peter versus Goliath, but he has not done it alone.
As for us at the IPA, we will continue to keep you updated with news on this important fight for freedom of speech on climate change.
As always, thank you for your support.