University of Auckland academics have challenged a policy they say would limit them in speaking out on important issues, while having a "chilling effect" elsewhere.
But the university insists it's not trying to gag its academics, and just seeking to clarify under what capacity staff members should be making public comments.
The university has a media and communications policy in place stating staff can make public comments when discussing their area of expertise, or as a "private individual" when it came to matters outside their area of expertise or university role.
As experts, they could make statements to reporters or the public provided it was "made clear that such statements or communications reflect their expert view, rather than representing an official university position".
When commenting outside their research area, or in a private capacity, however, they were asked not to use their university email address or stationery, or their university title or honorific.
The university was now proposing the policy should also apply to students - and that academics contacted by the media advise the communications office, so it could better deal with follow-up press enquiries.
The policy was being tightened up after a PhD student produced a homophobic article in international media referencing his academic role - one which didn't include expertise in the subject of the piece.
It immediately drew a sharp response from several top academics - among them Professor Shaun Hendy, who explored concerns around gagging in his 2016 book Silencing Science.
Until now, Hendy, a physicist and prominent science commentator, said the policy had been routinely ignored by himself and his colleagues.
He was concerned the university had put it to staff again, arguing that it ran counter to a critic and conscience role Universities New Zealand described as underpinning "the important role of the public academic, and their freedom to provide independent expertise and comment on issues".
He further noted that how academics defined their expertise wasn't straightforward.
"Policies that restrict academics on what they can say are often used to shut down debate and suppress research," adding that the argument scientists shouldn't comment on policy was a tactic often used by climate change deniers.
"And as I wrote about in Silencing Science, New Zealand has a thin research sector - often there is no one who would call themselves an expert available to comment on an issue, so generalists have to step up."
He was concerned that such a policy at New Zealand's biggest university could have ramifications for academics elsewhere.
"It could definitely be used by other universities, so it could potentially have a chilling effect on universities elsewhere, even though they have better policies in place," he said.
"It causes people to second-guess what we can and can't comment on, and that doesn't lead to good discussion or debate."
In a statement, a spokesperson said the university "absolutely acknowledges academic freedom and the role of our academics as critics and conscience of society and this policy is not intended to curb academic freedom".
"This is one of the reasons we put all new policies and policy updates out for consultation."
All feedback would be considered and form part of the decision around the university's final version, they said.