"Employees of the university have the right to come to work without having their confidence in senior management undermined."
This was the justification used by senior managers at Keele University when reprimanding a member of staff for circulating an open letter complaining about management accountability, according to the University and College Union.
The case has sparked fresh debate about how far academic freedom extends to academics' right to put forward unpopular opinions, not just in their area of research expertise but on wider issues such as the running of their university.
Keele insists that "the principle that individuals may not circulate or promulgate material or opinion which might undermine confidence in their employer" was "well established", but academics at Keele have criticised the university for invoking staff rights as the justification to silence a staff member.
Colin Whitson, president of the Keele branch of the UCU, said: "This is a curious sort of right. It is not one that the union has asked for. It is plainly one that (union) members cannot enforce, but one management claims to enforce on their behalf.
"If undermining members' confidence in senior management is potentially a disciplinary matter, then we expect to see a considerable queue of senior managers requiring representation. The threat of disciplinary action in such matters signals a new determination that academic members of staff get used to being treated as compliant employees rather than as members of the university," he said.
A more standard line adopted by employers to prevent staff from openly criticising the running of their institution, used across industry, is an obligation of employees not to bring their employer into disrepute. Keele also said it was common practice to prevent the circulation of any material "which might damage the reputation or standing of any individual at any level".
In the Keele case, the open letter questioned whether the vice-chancellor, Janet Finch, had the authority to create new posts without authorisation from the university's council. It also said that one appointee was related to another member of the senior management team.
In a letter to the author, a senior lecturer, the human resources department warned him not to "engage in any further correspondence with other people regarding any aspect of your open letter".
The academic was told that disciplinary action would be taken if he circulated any new material that breached this directive.
The case is one of a growing number that have arisen as a result of staff criticising managers. In 2006, Middlesex University computing professor Richard Bornat was disciplined after sending a group e-mail to colleagues criticising his department's failure to supply a computer to a colleague. Last year, the University of Wolverhampton sacked lecturer Sal Fiore, partly as a result of postings he had made to websites.