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Sacked: climate change sceptic has last laugh

University academic has been compensated more than $1.2 million for unlawful dismissal
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Sacked: climate change sceptic has last laugh

Sacked: climate change sceptic has last laugh

23 September 2019

A long-serving university academic who publicly criticised the research of work colleagues has been compensated more than $1.2 million for unlawful dismissal and 13 breaches of his employment agreement.

The employee was unable to gain other employment afterwards, and claimed that publicity from his comments and then dismissal had sabotaged his employability.

The Federal Circuit Court found that James Cook University had abused its power by publicly attempting to discredit him, even after the initial judgment in his favour.

Facts of case

The employee was a professor who had worked at the university for almost 30 years. He contacted a journalist to criticise research published by the university into the impact of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef and said that organisations that worked with the university should “check their facts before they spin their story”.

The university dismissed him, claiming that he had denigrated the university and work colleagues, breached confidentiality and failed to behave “in a way that upholds the integrity and good reputation of the university”. It relied on a code of conduct that applied to its employees. 

Prior to dismissal, it had formally censured him and issued a directive that his public comments on his area of expertise had to be made “in a collegial manner that upholds the university and individual respect”. It also directed him to keep the disciplinary proceedings against him confidential. 

However, the enterprise agreement covering university employees contained an “intellectual freedom” clause, and the court ruled that this took precedence over the code of conduct – whereas the university had assumed the reverse in dismissing the employee. 

The employee had earned only $3000 from consulting work since his dismissal, and claimed that large employers didn’t want to employ people who had been involved in public controversy and publicly criticised by an employer.

Before the court’s initial decision in the employee’s favour became public, the university’s Vice-Chancellor had issued a statement, a group email and a Twitter link that attempted to undermine the decision, attacking the employee’s behaviour and claiming the decision was not based on any case law. The decision had vindicated the employee and restored his reputation. The court took these actions by the university into account when awarding compensation in this subsequent decision. 

The employee had used legitimate means of public debate to argue his views, and in doing so had merely attempted to exercise his “intellectual freedom”. The university had attempted to portray him as dishonest, disloyal and recalcitrant, publicly accused him of serious misconduct and ostracised him from the academic community. The court found no evidence of any of those attributes.

The university had also trawled through his emails trying to find other evidence to support its claim of breaching the code of conduct – an action the court described as “extremely serious” and an “egregious abuse” of the power an employer has over an employee. Overall, there was a concerted attempt to gag him.

The university claimed that it had not dismissed or disciplined the employee for his views about climate change. It claimed it only took action for misconduct and disciplinary reasons.

In determining the compensation payable, the court took into account that the university had never acknowledged that it had treated the employee unfairly, despite obtaining legal advice that the employee had not breached any confidentiality provisions. 


The court held that there was no justification for dismissing the employee. He had exercised a basic workplace right and was a long-standing and productive employee. It awarded compensation of $1,219,214.47, of which $125,000 was penalties for breaches of the employment agreement.

The latter amount comprised $45,000 for unlawful dismissal, $35,000 for the directives involved in “gagging” him, $30,000 for trawling through his emails, and $15,000 for denying him the right to express his views without retribution.

The judgment discussed the factors involved in calculation of compensation in considerable detail, both damages and financial penalties.

The bottom line: The court regarded this case as an example of serious misconduct by an employer. In particular, it criticised the employer’s actions after the initial finding that the employee was unlawfully dismissed. The employer had attempted to undermine that decision and continued to publicly attack the employee, damaging his reputation and employability.

The university says it will appeal the decision.

Read the judgment

Ridd v James Cook University (No 2), [2019] FCCA 2489, 6 September 2019

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