USyd wrong to fire academic over swastika
A controversial Sydney scholar who imposed the swastika on an Israeli flag did so in intellectual freedom and therefore could not be fired, a judge heard.
Dr Tim Anderson worked at the University of Sydney from February 1988 until his dismissal in February 2019. At the time of his departure he was a senior professor in the Department of Political Economics.
While in college, he made a number of claims, including that a News Corp reporter was a “traitor” because of an article on the Armenian genocide and that US Senator John McCain was a “key American war criminal”.
He also said that News aired “misleading war propaganda” in support of what it called a terrorist war in Syria and superimposed a swastika on an Israeli flag in a presentation on media coverage of the Palestinian conflict.
Dr. Anderson was part of a delegation that visited Syria in 2013, meeting with government and non-government figures, including the president, Dr. Bashar al-Assad.
In response to his statements, the University of Sydney issued two separate warnings to Dr. Anderson in August 2017 and October 2018 before firing him in February 2019.
Backed by the National Union of Higher Education, he filed a lawsuit in Federal Court against his former employer two months later.
After initially losing the case in November 2020, Dr. Anderson then successfully appealed.
The Full Court found that the institute’s academics were allowed to express even “deeply offensive and insensitive” opinions under the banner of intellectual freedom as long as they did not harass, defame or intimidate anyone.
The case then went to Judge Tom Thawley who ruled on Thursday that Dr. Anderson’s comments had been made under the protection of intellectual freedom and that the terms of his employment contract meant he could not be authorized for them.
The warnings on the statements constituted a breach of contract, as did the university’s decision to fire him, the judge noted.
Professor Stephen Garton, who was deputy chancellor while Dr Anderson worked at the University of Sydney, also violated labor law by issuing the warnings, Judge Thawley said.
A spokesperson for the NTEU said there was a long wait for justice and called the decision a “victory for academic freedom” and the employment contract that enshrines this principle.
“This case was never about what Dr. Anderson said,” the spokesperson told AAP.
“We don’t always agree with our members, but we will defend their right to academic freedom, a cornerstone of universities.”
In a statement, the University of Sydney said it was “disappointed” by the decision.
“We note that we have previously managed to have all other aspects of the proceedings closed. We will now take the time to review the decision and consider our response and next steps. For now we will not comment further on this case ”.
A spokesperson said the university remains deeply committed to the expression and protection of intellectual freedom, which must be exercised responsibly and to the highest ethical, professional and legal standards.
“We also believe that civility and respect should be particularly valued when people disagree,” they said.
Dr. Anderson was contacted for comment.