Intellectual Freedom

April 18, 2019 | Posted by Peter Jakobsen | AUSTRALIANIA, LIFE, POLITICS, Ulalume | 0 Comments |

From a recent judgment by Judge Vasta in the Federal Circuit Court of Australia (now reversed on appeal), Ridd v James Cook University [2019] FCCA 997 (16 April 2019):

Intellectual freedom is also known as academic freedom. It is a concept that underpins universities and institutions devoted to higher learning. Obviously such institutions must have administrators that care for the governance and proper direction of the institution. However, the mission of these institutions must undoubtedly be the search for knowledge which leads to a quest for truth. In reality, intellectual freedom is the cornerstone of this core mission of all institutions of higher learning. This is so because it allows ideas to conflict with each other; to battle and test each other. It is within this “battle” that the strengths and weaknesses of ideas are found out. In this process, there comes “learning”. And with learning comes discovery. At its core, intellectual freedom mandates that academics should express their opinions openly and honestly, while inviting scrutiny and debate about those ideas. Unless opinions are expressed in this way, the growth and expression of ideas will be stifled and new realms of thinking will cease to be explored. That will lead to intellectual and social stagnation and a uniformity of thought which is an anathema to the concept of higher learning and social progress.”*

Intellectual freedom allows academics to challenge the status quo and encourage critical analysis. History tells of many people who did so. During the last 160 years, arguably the two most prominent scientists/academics to challenge the status quo have been Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. The ideas brought forth by both of these men were extremely controversial and offended several of their academic peers as well as many others in the greater society. That is how it should be and without intellectual freedom, the world would have been denied the benefit of ground-breaking thought and intellectual risk taking of the sort that encourages innovation and other scholastic enquiries. There is great power in intellectual freedom. But with great power there must also come great responsibility. There must, at times, be some degree of restraint so that there is no descent into anarchy. That is a fine balance and one that has challenged legal thinkers both past and present. And that, in turn, is why there is often an uneasy tension between those responsible for the administration of an institution of higher learning and those responsible for promulgating the ideas that give the institution their raison d’etre.”**

The University have been at pains to say that it is not what Professor Ridd has said, but rather the manner in which he has said it, that is the underlying reason for the censure, the final censure and the termination. But the University has consistently overlooked the whole of what has been written. They have concentrated on small, almost incidental parts of what has been said and then used the Code of Conduct to pass judgement on those small parts, with the intention that the flow on effect of that judgement would impugn the whole of what Professor Ridd has written.”^

To use the vernacular, the University has “played the man and not the ball”. Incredibly, the University has not understood the whole concept of intellectual freedom. In the search for truth, it is an unfortunate consequence that some people may feel denigrated, offended, hurt or upset. It may not always be possible to act collegiately when diametrically opposed views clash in the search for truth.”^^

Dr Ridd was got rid of by the University after he started declaiming his concerns about the quality of scientific evidence and opinion about the effects of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef.  Ridd has been attacked ( as partisan on this issue, which of course is rather a political hot potato.

The University issued a statement disagreeing with the decision, but it is not yet known if an appeal will be pursued.

Update: the University appealed to the Federal Court, which upheld the appeal and overturned the verdict in favour of Professor Ridd – this was based on fairly technical arguments that contended the Uni’s enterprise agreement, guaranteeing academic intellectual freedom, had to give way to a code of conduct that required academics to act in a collegial way, to respect the right of others, and to display responsibility in respecting colleagues’ reputations.  The upshot of this is that panjandrums in University bureaucracies can bone a Professor for engaging in debate on scientific or philosophical controversies. And as Wallace Stanley Sayre observed, such debates represent “the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” Well, James Cook University got rid of Ridd, so the stakes just got higher.

* At [6] to [8].

** At [9] to [11].

^ At [298].

^^ At [296].


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