Academic freedom includes the right to criticise university managers, a High Court judge has ruled.
Although the case was heard in the South African courts, the ruling has been welcomed by UK campaigners, who argue that academics' right to question received wisdom must not be restricted to cover only their area of research expertise.
Dismissing a defamation case brought by a university executive against a professor, Judge Johan Froneman said academic freedom "would include an unfettered debate on issues surrounding the autonomy of a university and the roles that managerial and academic staff, respectively, should play".
The judge added: "The so-called commercialisation of universities ... is part of this debate."
The case arose after Dasarath Chetty, executive director of the corporate communications department of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, sent an e- mail to staff at the institution asking them not to discuss impending industrial action with the media.
In a response that was copied to members of the South African Sociological Association, Jim Adesina, a professor at Rhodes University, said the e- mail "imposed a gag on the intellectual community" and represented a "grave and present danger to the essence of a university".
Dennis Hayes, founder of Academics for Academic Freedom and head of the Centre for Professional Learning at Canterbury Christ Church University, said: "Not many academics have the research background in management studies to use their 'academic freedom' to criticise (their managers)."