Auckland ‘too slow’ to protect academic from pandemic threats

Judge tells university to pay damages but rules there was no breach of Siouxsie Wiles’ academic freedom

July 8, 2024
Signage for the Epsom Campus of the University of Auckland in New Zealand
Source: iStock/Lakeview_Images

A judge has ordered the University of Auckland to pay NZ$20,000 (£9,567) in damages to an academic known for her media commentary during the pandemic after finding the institution was “too slow” to protect her from threats she received as a result of public appearances.

Siouxsie Wiles, a microbiologist at the top-ranked institution, sued the university over the harassment she faced during the pandemic, including threats of rape and murder from those opposed to her views, which reflected mainstream science at the time.

In court documents, the university asserted that it had taken measures to support Dr Wiles, including monitoring emails, issuing a trespass notice against a threatening individual and upgrading her home security. 

However, an employment court ruled on 8 July that the university’s health and safety response “was insufficient and too slow”.

“There was not…a well-developed strategy for dealing with the issues that arose; such a strategy might have been expected given harassment was a known risk for academic staff, especially women,” Judge Joanna Holden said.

“The university should have moved more quickly to put measures in place to protect and support [Dr] Wiles and her colleagues, obtaining expert assistance as required.

“While university personnel were sympathetic, they still seemed reliant on [Dr] Wiles and her colleagues to suggest actions they would like the university to take.”

In evidence submitted to court, Dr Wiles said she felt like she was “in a constant war zone”, with the university “out to get me somehow”. 

When issues of harassment arose, university officials investigated Dr Wiles’ use of social media and her public appearances, with vice-chancellor Dawn Freshwater at one point advising her and other colleagues to “keep any public commentary to a minimum”. 

The university maintained that it was attempting to balance its academics’ rights and responsibilities to communicate with the public with the need to protect their health and safety, but Dr Wiles accused it of breaching her right to academic freedom. 

From October 2021, Dr Wiles was questioned by the dean of the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences about her “outside activities”, including speaking engagements. In March 2022, she was advised to keep her “science communication and other service commitments” to one day a week.

However, while Judge Holden commented that the focus on “alleged outside activities was misplaced”, the court ruled that Dr Wiles’ academic freedom was not violated. 

The judge said: “The university was not attempting to suppress new ideas, or controversial or unpopular opinions; the opinions [Dr] Wiles and her colleagues were expressing were mainstream at the time they were being given, and it was not suggested those opinions should or could be kept from public view.”

Responding to the judgement, Professor Freshwater said this was a “significant ruling” on academic freedom, “which will be well received by universities in New Zealand and around the world”.

But Dr Wiles said that she felt “vindicated” by the ruling, noting that she and colleagues had “repeatedly raised our concerns until the Employment Court was the only place left to raise them”.

“Harassment of academics and experts is a long-standing and worldwide phenomenon,” Dr Wiles said. “Harassment, antagonism, abuse, and threats have increased and become normalised.

“They happen online and offline, both of which can lead to emotional and physical harm. These issues apply to workplaces whose staff interact with issues that affect social cohesion – from researchers to frontline communications staff at organisations as diverse as universities, councils, and healthcare providers.

“Organisations must be prepared and have policies and practices to support, protect, and care for workers.”

Shaun Hendy, who worked at the university during the pandemic and is now chief scientist at climate innovation company Toha, said the judgment should be a “wake-up call” for New Zealand’s universities. 

“Wiles’ courageous stance, in taking on New Zealand’s largest university, has left academic freedom in a much stronger position,” he said.   

“By finding that public commentary falls within Wiles’ scope of employment, something that the university at times disputed, the judgment substantially strengthens the freedom of academics to act as the ‘critic and conscience of society’.”

The university, where Dr Wiles still works, has been ordered to pay the associate professor compensation for general damages.

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