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Siouxsie Wiles portrait by Toby Morris
Siouxsie Wiles portrait by Toby Morris

The BulletinNovember 6, 2023

Siouxsie Wiles will have her day in court

Siouxsie Wiles portrait by Toby Morris
Siouxsie Wiles portrait by Toby Morris

The leading Covid commentator alleges her employer, the University of Auckland, failed to adequately protect her against a torrent of harassment. The hearing starts today, writes Catherine McGregor in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

Wiles v University of Auckland finally makes it to court

It was 22 months ago, in January 2022, that academics Shaun Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles filed a claim with the Employment Relations Authority against the University of Auckland (UoA), their employer. The scientists regularly appeared in the media to discuss the ongoing Covid pandemic, and both alleged the university had failed to respond adequately to harassment and threats directed at them as a result of their commentary. Having been quickly moved to the Employment Court, the case slowly wound its way through the legal system, along the way losing Hendy, who resolved his dispute with UoA upon leaving his faculty role in October 2022. This morning, the employment hearing finally commences. Wiles, a microbiologist, New Zealander of the Year and frequent contributor to The Spinoff throughout the pandemic, says she had raised concerns about her safety since April 2020, shortly after the pandemic began. The university either responded inadequately or not at all, she alleges.

‘Critic and conscience of society’

At the heart of the dispute is the concept of academic freedom, which legal columnist Sasha Borissenko defines as “the freedom to question the status quo and put forward new ideas and opinions, irrespective of controversy or popularity” – a freedom that gives academics protections that employees in other fields often do not have. This protection is enshrined in NZ law which states that being “a critic and conscience of society” is one of the defining characteristics of a university. UoA argues that academic freedom does not apply because Wiles’ Covid commentary was done in a personal capacity. In August 2021 the university, apparently after receiving legal advice, sent Wiles and Hendy a letter urging them to keep their public commentary to a minimum and suggesting they take paid leave “to minimise any social media comments”. Wiles is arguing that her Covid commentary was performed in a professional capacity and she was exercising academic freedom while doing so.

Years of ‘vile and despicable’ threats

In a remarkable coincidence of timing, the hearing starts just days after the release of Ms. Information, Gwen Isaac’s documentary about Wiles and her work. Reviewer Graeme Tuckett describes the numerous threatening messages and voicemails received by Wiles in the film as “vile, inhuman and despicable”. Wiles herself wrote in January 2022 that “the abuse, harassment, and threats started almost immediately after I began doing media interviews” and had carried on “on a near-daily basis” ever since. Last week she told the Pacific Media Network that she was still receiving death threats. In their initial complaint, Wiles and Hendy said that as a result of their work they had “suffered vitriolic, unpleasant, and deeply personalised threats and harassment” via email, social media and video sharing platforms which had a “detrimental impact” on their physical safety and their mental health.

Abuse of scientists in the public eye a global issue

While Covid has faded from the discourse, the impact on many of the experts who were thrust into the spotlight during the pandemic is profound. In March 2023 an international survey of scientists who had made media appearances to talk about Covid found more than a fifth had “received threats of physical or sexual violence”, 15% had their lives threatened, and about two-thirds were having second thoughts about sharing their expertise in public again. The issue is not restricted only to Covid. A poll of almost 500 climate scientists found that three-quarters of those regularly in the public eye were subject to online abuse and harassment. Multiple UK scientists told the Guardian that there’s been a huge rise in abuse from climate crisis deniers on Twitter/X since its takeover by Elon Musk last year.

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