Employer's attempt to dismiss controversial employee costs $1.2 million in compensation

By Sikeli Ratu, Lachlan Boucaut
Employment & Safety

In brief 2 min read

The Federal Circuit Court of Australia awarded a professor more than $1.2 million after his employer, a university, used 'cherry-picked' parts of his writings to justify his dismissal.1

Key takeaways

  • Increasingly, employers are attempting to take action against employees for making statements that are contrary to the employer's reputation and interests.
  • This decision reinforces that workplace policies will be subordinate to the rights and obligations set out in industrial instruments and employment contracts.
  • It also confirms the importance of ensuring that workplace investigations are procedurally fair and consider all relevant documents.


Professor Ridd was employed by James Cook University (JCU) and covered by an enterprise agreement. He managed the marine geophysical laboratory for 15 years.

From late 2015 onwards, Professor Ridd made comments – both publicly and privately – that, in his view, research undertaken, including by other parts of JCU, about the coral bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef was inaccurate, that there was a lack of quality assurance in research published by scientists, and that there was a lack of rigour in the peer review process.

After complaints from Professor Ridd's colleagues, JCU investigated a total of 17 allegations of misconduct against him, over several years, in relation to comments he had made. This included comments Professor Ridd had made about the investigation process itself, despite a direction from JCU that he keep the investigations confidential.

JCU decided Professor Ridd had breached its code of conduct and its directions, and dismissed him in May 2018. He challenged the dismissal on the basis that it breached the intellectual freedoms enshrined in the enterprise agreement.

The decision

The Federal Circuit Court agreed with Professor Ridd and decided the dismissal was unlawful. The court said the enterprise agreement that applied to Professor Ridd's employment was the basis that gave all other JCU documents – including the code of conduct – their power. As a result, the court said, the code of conduct could not detract from the enterprise agreement.

In this case, the enterprise agreement guaranteed intellectual freedom. The code of conduct, as applied by JCU in relation to Professor Ridd, sought to limit that freedom by preventing him from communicating about certain topics. The code of conduct, the court decided, could not do this and, as a result, JCU had breached the enterprise agreement.


  1. Ridd v James Cook University [2019] FCCA 997; Ridd v James Cook University (No. 2) [2019] FCCA 2489.