Deciding body (English)
Type of body
Type of Court (material scope)
- Civil Court
- Criminal Court
- Constitutional Court
Type of Court (territorial scope)
Further areas addressed
- Health and freedom of association/public gathering/religion
- Political/religious discrimination
Outcome of the decision
The Applicant was a nursing student and had her clinical placements cancelled in a hospital, and later a vaccination clinic, due to her skepticism about the safety of COVID-19 vaccination. In addition to this action, her conduct was the subject of an internal university disciplinary review. The main rights involved were freedom of speech, freedom of religion and discrimination based on political or religious beliefs. The Applicant sought a declaration that the University’s conduct was in breach of section 35 of the Western Sydney University Act 1997 and sought orders for the University to arrange further clinical placements for her. The Applicant also sought orders restraining the University from any further disciplinary action against her or giving effect to the sanctions already in place. The Court found in the Applicant’s favour and held that the cancellation of the clinical placements was in breach of the Act and was unlawful.
Facts of the case
The Applicant was a nursing student at the university and was required at the completion of her studies to undertake 800 hours of clinical placement. The Applicant’s placement at St George Hospital, commencing 30 August 2020 was cancelled by the Director of Clinical Placements based on the fact she had been sent home, by hospital staff, after expressing concerns about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccination, refusal to be vaccinated, and refusal to undergo COVID testing due to perceived cancer risk. The Applicant was then vaccinated against COVID-19 and was allocated a placement at Macquarie Fields Vaccination Hub on 25 October 2020. At that placement, the Applicant continued to express views of the safety of the vaccine to another Registered Nurse. The placement was again cancelled on this basis. The University took internal disciplinary action against the student and the outcome was that the Applicant was requested to write a 1500 word “appreciation” on how her conduct was a “breach of her professional obligations’, before any further placements were scheduled. Submissions were made on behalf of the Applicant that the internal action has been pre-decided based on the Applicant’s perceived ‘anti-vax’ stance, and not on the facts at hand. The Applicant sought a declaration that the University was in breach of section 35 of the Western Sydney University Act 1997 which prohibits the University from discriminating against students on the ground of religious or political views or beliefs.
Type of measure challenged
Measures, actions, remedies claimed
Individual / collective enforcement
Nature of the parties
Type of procedure
Reasoning of the deciding body
The Court considered the relevant section of the Western Sydney University Act 1997 namely section 35 which provided:
No religious or political discrimination
A person must not, because of his or her religious or political affiliations, views or beliefs, be denied admission as a student of the University or progression within the University or be ineligible to hold office in, to graduate from or to enjoy any benefit, advantage or privilege of, the University.
The Judge concluded that the refusal to organize clinical placements was a clear denial of “progression within the University” and it also constituted a denial of a “benefit, advantage or privilege” of the University. The Judge considered freedom of speech and freedom of thought as it related to section 35 and stated at -:
It is true that s 35 is not a guarantee of free speech as such. But free speech may be tied up with freedom of thought. Even in circumstances where there is no right of free speech, freedom of conscience will still protect the citizen from being required to make an affirmative profession of belief. Furthermore, a citizen’s speech is usually taken as a guide to that person’s thought. Action against the citizen merely for expressing a thought, when no countervailing interest is engaged, is an indirect attack on the citizen’s freedom to hold it... The theory behind s 35 is that this is an objective process and the personal beliefs, whether religious or political, of those involved, are, or should be, irrelevant.
The Judge found that the representatives of the Respondent had taken the view that the Applicant was an anti-vaxxer because of questions asked by her as to the efficacy of the vaccine and that there was a risk she would give false information to patients. Further, the Respondent’s representatives, in their internal investigation, were not ‘concerned to enquire exactly what Ms Thiab had said to have been labelled as a spreader of “misinformation”’.
It was found that internal action taken against the Applicant was ‘a travesty’. There was no intent to correlate the Applicant’s behaviour with alleged breaches of either the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia Code of Conduct, or the International College of Nurses Code of Ethics for Nurses.
The Judge found that opposition to vaccination may be based on genuinely held political beliefs; however the “cogency” of such beliefs are irrelevant in this context. The Judge went on to say that public health is a social science requiring a balance between people’s individual freedoms and a government taking action to restrict the spread of a disease in the collective interest. The Judge concluded that this is a politically controversial situation in any person’s view. In questioning the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine, the Applicant was effectively criticizing government policy and this statement is political in nature. The University in cancelling the Applicant’s placements were taken because of beliefs that were political in nature and were contrary to section 35 and the decision was therefore unlawful.
The Judge found that the Respondent’s University’s actions in cancelling the Applicant’s clinical placements on 25 October 2021, after she had been vaccinated and in later imposing sanction 4, which prevented any further placements being allocated, contravened s 35.
Conclusions of the deciding body
The Court concluded that the University in cancelling the Applicant’s placements had breached section 35 of the Western Sydney University Act 1997.
Fundamental Right(s) involved
- Freedom of expression
- Freedom of information
- Political rights
- Right to bodily integrity
- Right to health (inc. right to vaccination, right to access to reproductive health)
Rights and freedoms specifically identified as (possibly) conflicting with the right to health
General principle applied
- Due process
Balancing techniques and principles (proportionality, reasonableness, others)
The Court undertook a brief historical analysis of the genesis of the section in question and discussed the progression of the legislation as it related to freedom of religion, freedom of thought and freedom of expression. The Court ultimately concluded that the University, in taking an action on the basis of the Applicant’s beliefs on vaccination was an attack on her right to hold that belief. Given that the belief was political in nature as it disagreed with government policy on vaccination then by cancelling the Applicant’s placements, the University prevented the Applicant from progressing within the University and breached section 35.