The University of Auckland says it never tried to silence high-profile scientist and Covid-19 commentator Siouxsie Wiles and did everything in its power to protect her from harassment.
Its lawyers also said the university was not impinging on academic freedom by flagging some of Wiles’ public commentary, saying the “manner” of some of her social media posts may have breached university standards.
The university’s legal team opened its defence this afternoon in the Employment Court, where Wiles is arguing that her employer failed to protect her from harassment and threats that resulted from her Covid-19 commentary.
In his opening statement, Philip Skelton KC rejected claims by Wiles that the university silenced her, attempted to silence her or instructed her to refrain from public commentary on Covid-19.
A letter from Vice-Chancellor Dawn Freshwater in August 2021 was an attempt to persuade Wiles to temporarily keep public commentary to a minimum while a security assessment was carried out on the threats she could be facing, Skelton said.
The court needed to consider the letter as a whole, he said. Freshwater had written three times that Wiles should limit her social media commentary - not her Covid-19 commentary, which the university supported.
In her evidence last week, Wiles told the court she felt she was being silenced by the university, citing the letter and meetings with HR representatives in which she was told to “pull back” from speaking on Covid-19. She said she felt she was being blamed for bringing the abuse upon herself.
Skelton told the court the university placed great value on academic freedom and encouraged staff to provide media commentary if it was in the public interest.
However, academic freedom was a “privilege not a duty”, he said. It was not an “unfettered right” and had to be balanced against other responsibilities and legal requirements, including health and safety.
Skelton said the challenges the university faced during the Covid-19 period were complex and dynamic, and there was unrest among parts of the population - especially after lockdowns and vaccine mandates. As a scientist who supported and advocated for lockdowns and mandates, Wiles became a target for such groups.
Aside from a threat of a formal complaint from one person and some “low-level harassment”, abuse against Wiles did not ramp up until later in 2021, when she was placed on a “Nuremberg” list online, Skelton argued.
“Assessment of risk is a dynamic exercise, it is varying. There is a risk that we look at the endpoint and say those risks applied way back in April 2020, which was quite a different scenario at that time.”
In giving evidence last week, Wiles argued that the university had been slow to respond to the threats against her and its measures were often ineffective or inadequate.
Skelton told the court the university was unable to control all threats, such as what people posted on social media platforms. It therefore focused on minimising and managing the risks, which it did through its Staff Risk Intervention Team (SRIT) and by liaising with police on certain individuals.
The university hired an external firm, Quantum Systems, to audit the systems it used to keep staff safe, and implemented its recommendations.
It later obtained an external risk assessment for Wiles from KPMG, and took on board its recommendations, the court heard.
Wiles was never unjustifiably disadvantaged in any way, such as through disciplinary proceedings or having benefits removed, Skelton said.
It never instructed her to refrain from Covid commentary but did raise the “manner” of her tweets that related to university issues.
Previous evidence showed the university flagged her online comments - including one in which she called fellow academics “racist” and another in which she commented on a music teacher at the university who had been accused of sexual offending.
Skelton said the university was justified in discussing this online commentary with her and rejected Wiles’ claims it was retaliating against her.
Judge Joanna Holden stepped in at this point, saying that the context of the university’s actions was important. The university’s crackdown on her social media comments came soon after she filed legal action against her employer.
“I know your evidence will say it’s not retaliatory but it feels like inquiry was increased because she was … on the radar,” Holden said.
The hearing in Auckland is set down for three weeks.
Isaac Davison is an Auckland-based reporter who covers health issues. He joined the Herald in 2008 and has previously covered the environment, politics, and social issues.