It took the light forever to get to your eyes… We need better academic freedom cases

Back in 2016, Judy Wilyman was awarded a PhD by the University of Wollongong.  This upset a large number of people as her PhD thesis — a study of how the Australian Government’s vaccination policies were developed — included tangential remarks about the validity of studies into vaccination itself.

Unlike most people commenting on the thesis, I actually read the damn thing.  The bulk of it was fine; the tangential comments were embarrassing.

But the pop-science community was out for a scalp.  The University of Wollongong was inundated with vexatious complaints about Wilyman, but the University stood by Wilyman.

The controversy resulted in an article in Vaccine: ‘Public Health and the Necessary Limits of Academic Freedom?‘  Durrheim and Jones argued that the ‘principle of independent scholarship should continue to be prized but in our view it cannot be entirely unfettered. Academic autonomy must be balanced by ethical accountability and responsibility, particularly in the field of human health.’

Barely a few months later, James Cook University began disciplinary measures against Peter Ridd, then a professor of physics.  Ridd had gone out of his way to undermine colleagues working at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies.  Ridd denies anthropogenic climate change, and his attacks on the CRS were designed to undermine their research demonstrating the damage that climate change was having on the reef.  Following complaints that he had failed to act in a collegiate way, he then breached the code of conduct by interfering in the disciplinary process.  Supported by the National Tertiary Education Union, Ridd sued the University and, following some unusual shenanigans, lost his case against the University earlier this year.

The case is really about employment law, about which I am not even remotely a specialist.  Part of that legal framework was whether ‘academic freedom’ should be read into the employment contract (which stated ‘intellectual freedom’).  This caused quite a bit of public debate about whether or not there were sufficient legal protections for academic freedom.

About a year later (2017), the University of Sydney began disciplinary proceedings against Tim Anderson, a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Economy, for engaging in conduct that failed to exercise the best professional and ethical judgement… by posting on social media that a journalist, Kylar Loussikian, was a traitor to his Amenian ancestry and was inviting a second genocide on the Armenian people.  This kicked off a chain of events resulting in him breaching the code of conduct by — this seems to be a theme — interfering in the disciplinary process.  Anderson also doubled down on some wildly offensive presentations of Israel.

Again, the National Tertiary Education Union supported Anderson and sued the University of Sydney.  The University won, again for reasons related to the complexities of employment law — about which, I stress, I am not an expert.

These are terrible cases for public debate.  Are we seriously going to entertain the idea that academics should have a magical protection against consequences if they go on unprofessional attacks on colleagues?  Are we seriously going to entertain the idea that academics should enjoy statutory rights to tell journalists that they are ethnic traitors?  Like… what the fuck?

One of the problems with public debate of complex legal issues is that people rush to generalise abstract points.  In the Ridd and Anderson cases, it is true that the Court did not find an enforceable protection of ‘academic freedom’, but is this actually a bad thing?  What would it mean for academic freedom to be a tattered cloak for dishonourable and disreputable conduct, like undermining colleagues?  Why does the individual desire of Ridd to sledge his colleagues to journalists undermine his colleagues’ right to a professional workplace environment?  Why does the individual desire of Anderson to say batshit offensive things about a journalist he dislikes undermine his colleagues’ right at the University of Sydney to a professional environment?

In the review undertaken by former High Court Chief Justice French, French found that ‘academic freedom’ was a nebulous concept of ‘apparently no settled definition’ that is ‘nevertheless seen as a defining characteristic of universities and similar institutions’.  The question is why this nebulous concept should be legislated so that bad faith actors and rogues who don’t have any regard for the scholarly community can use it to escape the obvious, rational, and sensible consequences of their terrible behaviour.

Or, further, if the Wilyman thesis really had been as ghastly as its critics imagined, should there really be a statutory shield to protect anti-vax conspiracy theories within the Academy?

Something has to give here.  If universities are organisations committed to the social benefits of research, then academic freedom should not — and must not — become a safe haven for socially worthless or socially harmful speech.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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