Academic Freedom? The Peter Ridd Case is Part of a Much Larger Problem with Australian Universities

James Cook University professor Peter Ridd. Picture: Cameron Laird

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

What academic freedom is left in Australia, if Professor Patrick Parkinson, Dean of Law at the University of Queensland had a paper rejected, because students and peer reviewers were concerned, not about whether the paper was well structured and presented, but about whether the paper might offend people?

The following essay, which mentions the Peter Ridd case, has been reproduced in full with the permission of the author Professor James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland.

Academic peers gag their own, amid alarming signs on free speech gag in Tasmania

11:00PM OCTOBER 26, 2020

I am the Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland and one of the comparatively small number of right-of-centre legal academics in this country. From my arrival in Australia in 2005 until the end of 2018 I was the sole editor of a G8 university law review here at UQ. And before that, when working in New Zealand, I was for a decade the sole editor of NZ’s oldest law review at the University of Otago. So with almost a quarter century under my belt as an editor of leading Antipodean law reviews I know my way around peer review and the law publishing game in this country.

In The Weekend Australian it was reported that my dean of law here at UQ, Professor Patrick Parkinson, had complained that the University of Tasmania Law Review had rejected a paper he had submitted because the student editors, and the two peer reviewers they had selected, did not like his views on transgender laws in Tasmania. (Readers will immediately realise Parkinson’s paper was critical of them.) Parkinson has shown me both referees’ reports and his paper. In my view it is plain, on the basis of what the referees wrote, that they did not like Parkinson’s substantive views on the topic and that drove their decisions.

One was worse than the other but both, in my view, failed to do the job expected of referees. Politics trumped the open expression of views that were presented well above the usual standards required to have a paper accepted by a law review. The end result is de facto censorship, the suppressing of arguments and opinions that are for many on the political left very unpopular.

This, alas, is typical of the state of free speech and the free expression of ideas in today’s Australian universities. The situation is bad and getting worse.

As for the peer review process, especially outside the hard sciences, many criticisms can be made of it. For one thing, editors pick the referees and for student-edited law reviews that means undergraduate law students doing the selecting – though it’s not necessarily always much better with faculty editors. To ask students to stand outside the prevailing orthodoxies when doing that choosing is seeking a lot. Another, regrettable, failing is that more and more referees these days fail to do their job. That job is not to say whether they like the paper under consideration, or agree with it, or find it politically palatable. Nor is it to decide whether this is the paper they would have written — which is mocked in the old joke about the peer reviewer who walks into a bar and says: “This isn’t the joke I would have told.” Rather, the job is simply to pass judgment on whether the paper and its insights, claims and evidence are of a publishable standard in the light of established discipline standards of research excellence – and Parkinson’s paper clearly meets that standard. If you don’t agree, write a response.

The core problem then is that as our universities have become increasingly politicised, and faculties of social science, arts and law ever less “viewpoint diverse” (to appropriate the present jargon), the whole peer review process has become less and less trustworthy. Put more bluntly, this amounts to yet another inroad into free expression.

Things are pretty bad on this front. The French review of free speech and academic freedom in Australia’s universities (undertaken by a former chief justice of the High Court) was deficient because it limited itself to a review of the paper policies of our universities. It did not consider the so-called lived experience of academics on the ground, including how certain points of view — we all know which ones — might indirectly affect promotions, hiring, grant-getting and, yes, the ease of being published.

Take the Peter Ridd case at James Cook University by way of illustration. The technical, legal dispute there boiled down to whether the enterprise agreement (negotiated between the university and five unions) trumped the code of conduct (drafted by the Vice-Chancellor and her top people) or vice versa. There has been next to no conservative input into any of these terms and conditions.

I happen to think the Federal Court of Appeal got even this narrow legal issue wrong, but the substantive problem is that an established academic like Ridd, alleging serious research errors, can be silenced and even fired for effectively speaking his mind. This is no testament to free speech in our universities, whatever the legal outcome.

What is worse is that we have a Coalition government that does next to nothing about any of this. Indeed Prime Minister Scott Morrison has never shown any real interest in free speech and freedom generally. He once remarked sardonically that it didn’t create any jobs — this from a government that has destroyed more jobs than any other Australian government.

If Parkinson’s experience were a one-off, we could all shrug and move on. But it is not. It’s indicative of the one-sided nature of who is more likely to be able to speak on our campuses, and even in society more widely.

James Allan is Garrick Professor in Law at the University of Queensland.


The death of academic freedom in Australia will have dire consequences.

If professors, even deans of major universities, can no longer take the risk of speaking their minds or offending people, then they will no longer be free to publicly correct the mistakes of others. Academic innovation and progress will cease, as will the economic and social benefits which accrue from honest and open exploration and review of important issues.

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via Watts Up With That?

October 28, 2020 at 12:11AM

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