The University of Auckland has voiced concerns that media coverage of a court case could “re-trigger” abuse against Dr Siouxsie Wiles after an incident at its campus this morning.
The university’s lawyers said in court today a person came onto the campus asking to speak to Wiles.
A university spokeswoman said campus security were called at 8.10am after a man entered a university building asking after the scientist. He was not located by security staff or on CCTV.
The spokeswoman said no threats were made but security was briefed in case he returned and police were advised. Wiles and her lawyer were also notified.
It occurred as Wiles, a microbiologist and science communicator, takes on the university in the Employment Court in Auckland. She has argued the institution’s leaders failed to protect her from threats which followed her commentary on Covid-19 and vaccination.
The university’s legal team revealed the incident while discussing a media application this morning.
During an application by Radio New Zealand to record the hearing, Lawyer Philip Skelton KC said further coverage could “re-trigger” abuse against Wiles, citing this morning’s event at the university.
Coverage could “create a health and safety risk”, he said, “which is what everyone is trying to avoid” but he did not oppose RNZ’s application.
Lawyer Catherine Stewart, after consulting Wiles, said her client did not object to the media application. She said the defence’s argument - that minimising coverage would reduce harassment against her - was a “fallacy”.
“Raising public awareness ultimately leads to better health outcomes,” Stewart said, adding that her client supported open justice.
Judge Joanna Holden granted the media application, saying the “horse had bolted” and “it seems a bit pointless to restrict media at this stage”.
Several media organisations, including the Herald, covered the first day of the hearing yesterday. Media do not require permission to cover the case, but must get approval to record audio, video or photographs.
In a statement to the Herald, the university said it respected the court’s decision to allow media coverage of the hearing.
“However, in court today the University (while advising that it would abide the decision of the court) reiterated its concerns about the potential health and safety consequences of media coverage, particularly in light of this morning’s reported incident of an unknown man entering a university building seeking the whereabouts of Dr Wiles.
“At no point has the University challenged the court’s decision to allow media coverage of the hearing.”
The university, which denies it has breached its statutory obligations, began its cross-examination of Wiles this afternoon.
Its lawyers argued academic freedom was not “unfettered” and had to be balanced by the university against other responsibilities like health and safety.
Skelton challenged Wiles on her accusation that she was silenced by the university, saying she had given “thousands” of interviews on Covid-19.
Wiles said she was defying the university in giving these interviews, and many of them were done before she was told to “pull back” from the spotlight by the university’s HR director Andrew Phipps.
There was no record of this claim, Skelton said, before adding that Wiles might have been mistaken or confused.
“I do not have a transcript and have to rely on my memory,” she responded. “Given how he behaved in future meetings, I think my memory was quite reliable.”
Skelton said Wiles was never directly instructed to stop her media commentary and was regularly praised for her work by university leaders.
“When your vice-chancellor urges you not to do something, it certainly [feels] like an instruction,” Wiles responded.
Wiles was later challenged on her claim that the university had provided no security measures in response to her complaints about harassment.
Skelton said an external security assessment was commissioned, and while this was taking place, the university’s Staff Risk Intervention Team (SRIT) was monitoring abusive emails and social media.
Existing measures were ongoing, such as security patrols on campus and a lockdown of the floors in her building (which was already in place because of biological chemicals). Swipe access was also introduced at another of her worksites, Te Pūnaha Matatini (TPM).
“Do you now see that at least some protective measures were in place?” Skelton said.
Wiles acknowledged those measures, while saying she and her colleagues had concerns about the delays in implementing them and the quality of said measures. Social media monitoring excluded the fringe platforms where threats usually arose, and hundreds people still had access to the TPM offices.
The university’s legal team also questioned Wiles about academic freedom and when it was reasonable to limit this freedom.
“The university’s case is that as an employer it must balance academic freedom against the other legal duties it owes to employees - one of which is taking all steps to keep employees safe,” Skelton said.
He also suggested Wiles had herself sought some limits on academic freedom when she criticised colleague and epidemiologist Simon Thornley - who made controversial comments about Covid-19 during the pandemic.
“That is a gross misjudgement,” Wiles said, her voice rising. “I don’t think I was asking at any stage for him to be silenced - I was asking, ‘How do we deal with this, when an academic does not have the evidence base?’”
The hearing is expected to take three weeks.
Correction: University of Auckland’s lawyer did not formally oppose a media application in court as originally reported on November 7.