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Judge accused of attacking freedom of speech

Paul Austin (The Age)

THE chancellor of Victoria University has been accused of undermining free speech after using the State Government solicitor to threaten to sue a senior academic for defamation.

Government solicitor John Cain jnr has sent a letter on behalf of the chancellor, Supreme Court judge Frank Vincent, to James Doughney, a member of the university's governing council, demanding he withdraw and apologise for an attack on Victoria University chiefs over their plan to slash hundreds of jobs.

Justice Vincent last night defended his decision to engage the government solicitor, and dismissed Dr Doughney's assertion that his academic freedom was under attack.

The Age revealed in October that Dr Doughney, an economist and state president of the National Tertiary Education Union, had sent a six-page paper to state and federal MPs accusing the university's vice-chancellor, Professor Elizabeth Harman, of manufacturing a cash crisis to justify cutting about 270 jobs. Mr Cain's three-page letter to Dr Doughney, dated December 12, says his statements were false and defamatory.

He accuses Dr Doughney of breaching the council's code of conduct, which requires members to "desist from intimidation in any form in connection with the role of the council".

"My instructions are to require you to publish an apology and withdrawal of the false and defamatory allegations that you have made, directed particularly against the vice-chancellor," Mr Cain writes.

"Otherwise, I am instructed that the chancellor and the vice-chancellor reserve their rights."

Dr Doughney, the elected academic staff representative on the council, said yesterday it was extraordinary that the chancellor had engaged the government solicitor in a bid to "gag" an academic expressing legitimate views about university governance.

"This action is at odds with any concept of critical inquiry, debate, argument, logic and freedom of speech that you would think is associated with places of learning like universities," he told The Age.

"If you disagree with each other, argue the toss - don't throw attempted legal gags at your critics."

Dr Doughney said it was critical that debates about community institutions such as universities be conducted in public.

"They are not private corporations and they are not personal fiefdoms," he said. "They are public assets."

He said Justice Vincent needed to recognise the university was not a court of law, but a "learning community where you are going to get arguments and different interpretations".

"My view is simple: get used to it," he said.

Asked whether he would withdraw and apologise, as demanded by the university chiefs, Dr Doughney replied: "They have got to be joking. I stand by my criticisms and I'm prepared to fight this all the way."

Justice Vincent said last night the legal letter was sent on advice from senior counsel that Dr Doughney's statements were defamatory.

"The action that was taken reflects the concern occasioned by the nature of the attack made upon the vice-chancellor by Dr Doughney and the responsibility of council members," he said.

"Victoria University unequivocally supports and upholds the fundamentally important principle of academic freedom. However, it is patently clear from Dr Doughney's comments themselves and the context in which they were made that no question of the restriction of its expression arises in the present situation."

Dr Doughney's attack on Professor Harman was prompted by her announcement in October of a six-month program of forced and voluntary redundancies to "rebalance" the budget and "future-proof" the university.

[Pictured: Jamie Doughney addressing the 6th Socialist Alliance national conference.]

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