Academics have organised a media boycott after the University of Melbourne declined to support an academic facing a defamation action.
About 80 academics voted to seek a promise from the university to offer them legal protection for bona fide public comments they may make in their fields of expertise.
The ban could spread to universities in other states. The National Tertiary Education Union is asking its university branches to decide whether to take similar action to protect their own members.
At the centre of the row are comments to a weekend magazine supplement by Miles Lewis, an associate dean (research) of architecture and building at Melbourne, about Lloyd Williams, a property developer and chairman of the city's Crown Casino.
Mr Williams issued defamation writs against Professor Lewis and the John Fairfax Group, publishers of The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.
The alleged defamation amounted to only one sentence in a long article on the high-profile developer The boycott is yet to have a noticeable impact in the daily media but the issue has left a feeling of unease among many academics who consider it part of their profession to be outspoken and forthright in their opinions in the public arena.
The dispute raises the question of where the line should be drawn between professional and private comment. Some academics feel that the case sets a dangerous precedent.
A wounded individual may become far more litigious knowing that academics will not be supported by their institutions, they argue.
The NTEU is hoping the ban will pressure the university to change its stance. "This is a sad day for the higher education system as a whole," the union's national assistant secretary Ted Murphy told a meeting of Melbourne University academics.
The university has remained silent on the matter. While all universities encourage academics to enter public debates in areas of their expertise, it appears that the university's insurance policy does not automatically cover the acts of university staff.