7 Nov 2023

Siouxsie Wiles takes University of Auckland to Employment Court in wake of Covid-19 lockdown-era threats

9:01 pm on 7 November 2023
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Siouxsie Wiles says her employer should have offered better support when she became a prominent figure in informing the public about Covid-19. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Prominent academic and science communicator, microbiologist Siouxsie Wiles, has taken her employer to court over what she claims is a failure to protect her as she received threats for her commentary on Covid-19 and vaccines.

Today was the second day of Wiles' case against the University of Auckland (UoA) at the Employment Court, sitting at the Auckland District Court.

Verbal threats and being filmed without consent by conspiracy theorist Billy Te Kahika were among the many concerns Wiles said she raised with the university.

Wiles said she faced an escalation of threats, in both volume and the level of violence, fuelled by misogyny - including calls for her to be executed, and being put on a "citizens arrest" list.

The court heard that while Wiles began to raise issues with the university in early 2020, it was not until the end of 2021 that it began putting in safety measures.

Wiles said the lack of response to concerns she raised about harassment was "hurtful".

She argued that the university was slow to act and did not begin taking actions - such as commissioning a security audit - until after she decided to take legal action in June 2021.

Wiles told the court that UoA's vice-chancellor professor Dawn Freshwater declined three times to meet with her and other colleagues from Te Pūnaha Matatini who had the same safety concerns.

She challenged a statement by Freshwater which said the university's human resources director Andrew Phipps was addressing her concerns, and instead said it was "far from reality".

Wiles said she had expectations from the university, considering that in 2018 all staff received an email by the then-vice -chancellor Stuart McCutcheon, that a staff risk intervention team was in place to support employees over anonymous threats and gender based violence.

Under cross examination by the university's lawyer Philip Skelton, Wiles was challenged on her claims that the university tried to silence her after she raised concerns.

The court had heard that the vice chancellor sent Wiles a letter in August 2021 that asked her to minimise public commentary until the completion of a risk review.

Skelton argued that Wiles was not silenced, having conducted at least 2000 Covid-19-related media interviews.

Wiles said many of the interviews were done at the peak of things leading up the lockdown, and that the letter had come after a lot of that work had already been done.

She added that not following the vice chancellor's "urgings" meant she worried about the risks to her employment.

"I worried about what processes they might put in place to try to force me to act, but I was very concerned about the fact that information was needed by the public, and that over-rode my concerns."

Wiles said the letter's wording felt like an instruction, but Skelton insisted that it was a recommendation.

She said she was also asked by faculty of medical and health science dean John Fraser to limit her public commentary work to one day a week.

Wiles was quizzed multiple times under cross-examination by Skelton on whether she agreed that there were limits to academic freedom under certain circumstances.

She said she could not answer that question as she was not an expert on the topic.

Skelton argued that the university had to balance academic freedom to ensure staff safety.

"The university's case is that an employer - as an employer, it must balance 'academic freedom' against other legal duties that it owes to its employees.

"And one of those duties is to take keep all employees safe while at work, do you agree and accept that there's a balancing exercise here that has to take place?"

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