An employment dispute between the prominent academic and the University of Auckland concluded in court this week, but it could be months before an outcome is known. Here’s how it played out.
Auckland microbiologist and Covid commentator Siouxsie Wiles could be waiting weeks or even months to find out whether she’ll be awarded compensation after taking on her employer in court.
A three-week employment court hearing between Wiles and the University of Auckland concluded on Tuesday. The case hinged on Wiles’ allegation that her employer had failed to respond adequately to safety concerns arising from harassment and threats triggered by Wiles’ vocal role as a science expert during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The case has attracted its fair share of media attention. In New Zealand much of this has focused on Wiles herself, given that she is a household name post-Covid. But academics overseas have also been keeping a close eye on the hearing as it examined the extent to which public communication is part of an academic’s duty to society.
The Spinoff has been in court for some of the case. Here is what we learnt.
Wiles became an unexpected science celebrity during the Covid-19 pandemic, frequently appearing in media outlets and at times doing dozens of interviews per day. Her collaborations with The Spinoff’s Toby Morris, in which the pair succinctly broke down everything from mask etiquette to vaccine efficacy, went around the globe and were used by then-prime minister Jacinda Ardern to help prepare the country for its first lockdown.
But as Wiles’ level of public recognition rose, so too did an influx of abuse and threats. Like many in the science community helping to distil and share information about the pandemic, Wiles faced backlash from certain corners of the internet and found herself demonised for her role promoting, among other things, mask-wearing and the Covid vaccine.
During this time, Wiles began to face online and in-person threats against her and attempted to seek support from the University of Auckland, her employer, over a period of several months. She believed it should have done more to protect her from the threats while still allowing her to be a visible face in the media.
In January last year Wiles and her colleague, fellow academic Shaun Hendy, filed a claim with the Employment Relations Authority against the University of Auckland. The pair had argued, the Herald reported, that “a small but venomous sector of the public” had become increasingly “unhinged” and that their employer had not taken sufficient steps to protect them.
Against the university’s wishes, the authority agreed to expedite the process and send the case straight to court. By this point Hendy was no longer involved. He had left the university and resolved his dispute, though he has remained engaged with the court process as a bystander. Several months later, at the start of November 2023, the case began.
Wiles has been in court for much of the hearing, both as a witness and seated in the public gallery. On the occasions The Spinoff attended, she was primarily there to hear evidence for her case be put forward and did not always stay to hear the university’s lawyer speak. On the final day of the hearing Wiles abruptly left the court, appearing shaken, shortly after the university’s lawyer started to recount some of the more traumatic evidence that had been raised in the court.
But on other occasions, such as when a member of the university’s security team was being questioned, Wiles could be observed quietly laughing or gently shaking her head at some of his responses.
Earlier in the hearing, Wiles herself presented evidence. She became emotional while on the stand, requesting a break in the proceedings, reported the Herald at the time.
Wiles told the court she felt threatened, stressed and harassed by the behaviour of online extremists. The court case, it must be laboured, wasn’t to specifically address concerns around the harassment but to examine whether the university should have done more to make her feel safe while exercising her academic freedom. Wiles told the court, in a comment later described by the judge as “compelling”, that while the “threats, harassment and abuse as a result of doing [her] work [had] been awful enough, the response from the university [had] been worse”.
She described the university as acting “almost like the enemy” and that she felt “fearful” in many situations, as though she was in a “constant war zone”. It had exacted a severe “mental and physical toll” on herself, her husband and her daughter.
Visibly emotional, Wiles described how she had tried to “engage in good faith [with] the university processes and yet again those processes have failed me and left me unprotected”.
Wiles also said that the university had told her to pull back on public commentary around the pandemic, and become “less visible” in order to relieve the threats against her. “This is victim-blaming and does not recognise the highly gendered way in which me and my female colleagues are targeted when our male colleagues are not,” Wiles told the court.
‘A witch hunt’
With the hearing wrapping up, the lawyers for both Wiles and the university had their final chance to summarise their arguments on Tuesday. Wiles’ lawyer claimed that Auckland University was well aware of the threats being made against Wiles – and had wilfully done nothing.
“They knew that she was being called a paedophile, an evil narcissist, a Nazi, a Satanist, a Lucifer and a psychopath. They knew that she was being threatened with hanging, being lined up before a firing squad and shot, being run over by a lorry, with rape and sexual violation, with death by execution, with citizen’s arrest,” Wiles’ lawyer Catherine Stewart said in court.
Then she went a step further. “Frankly, and I’m going to use the term witch-hunt your honour, but this has all the hallmarks of a witch-hunt.”
University not the ‘enemy’, says lawyer
The university has not denied that Wiles experienced harassment or faced threats while doing her job, but has maintained that her stress was not the result of the university’s behaviour. The university wasn’t the enemy, the institution’s lawyer told the court, and should only be liable for that which it can control.
“The defendant [the university] was not motivated by any ill-will or malice towards the plaintiff [Wiles]. On the contrary, the defendant was only trying to keep the plaintiff safe from harm,” University of Auckland lawyer Philip Skelton KC said in court.
Wiles remains an employee of the university, and has not been dismissed or faced sanction. “She has suffered no financial loss,” Skelton said on Tuesday. “She has not suffered any material inability to undertake her work. There is no medical evidence of any serious or ongoing health consequences.”
Skelton urged the court not to apply “hindsight bias” when looking at the facts of this case, arguing that only what was known at the time should be considered when considering how the university acted. “There can be no doubt that the defendant in this case was attempting to keep the plaintiff safe,” he said. “Much time and considerable resources were expended in that endeavour.”
Examples provided by the university included a liaison between university security and Wiles, a dedicated and monitored email inbox, installation of security at her home and social media monitoring. Many of these examples were discussed at length in court, with Wiles’ lawyer arguing that they were insufficiently utilised or, in the case of the email inbox, often left unmonitored.
What could Wiles get out of this?
Potentially, hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation, given the “humiliation” Wiles faced along with an alleged breach of contract and breach of “good faith” obligations. At least that’s what Wiles’ lawyer has argued for, telling the court such a penalty was justified, particularly given the newfound societal awareness for mental health and wellbeing in the workplace. “It’s important to keep pace with inflation and also the other jurisdictions.”
But the university argues the court should “exclude from the calculation any hurt or humiliation or loss of dignity… suffered as a result of the abuse… received from the third parties”, noting that Wiles herself admitted much of the harm had come from the behaviour of online antagonists.
“The court should reject the suggestion that the university’s treatment of [Wiles] was worse and caused [her] more distress than the abuse and threats she received over the course of the pandemic,” the university’s lawyer told the court. “It is clearly self-serving evidence without any corroboration.”
What happens next?
The court hearing may have wrapped up, but the wheels of justice turn very slowly. The judge reserved her decision this week, meaning that she will take time to consider the arguments posed by both sides and eventually form her decision. According to the Employment Court’s website, “90% of judgments will be delivered within three months of the last day of the hearing “ – but that doesn’t take into account “court vacations or other periods of judges’ leave”.
Given we are fast approaching Christmas, it seems likely the outcome of this case won’t be released until sometime in the new year – almost four years since the first case of Covid-19 arrived on New Zealand shores.