Each time a new restriction on free speech is passed in Australia we’re assured there is nothing to worry about. John Howard’s new anti-incitement laws, he tells us, “won’t stop legitimate political comment.” Similarly, when racial vilification laws were first introduced, it was denied that they would stifle “genuine” debate.

But Deakin University’s law school might think otherwise, having just been threatened with legal action if they publish an article, “Rethinking the White Australia Policy” by the notorious professor Andrew Fraser. Fraser, who holds a variety of discreditable views on race, intelligence and immigration (see previous comments in Crikey here), acquired national prominence in July when he was relieved of his teaching duties at Macquarie University.

There’s a legitimate question about how much restriction a university should put on what its academics say. As occasional Crikey contributor Guy Rundle discusses it in the current issue of Arena Magazine (not yet online), Fraser’s beliefs “work against the founding principle of the university,” but that “a university can work around one or two cranks” and “it would be crazy … for the left to co-operate with any attempt to place limits on free speech [that rely on] any relatively concrete and fixed notion of acceptable ideas.”

But if it’s one thing for your employer to tell you to keep quiet about some of your views (or your customer, as in the sad case of terrorist artwork reported by this morning’s Age), it’s quite another to be facing legal penalties. Lawyer George Newhouse threatened Deakin in no uncertain terms: “I put the university on notice that if they repeat the racial vilification, a claim for compensation may be made against the university and the editors that publish or republish this poison.”

A Deakin spokesman pointed out that this is a refereed publication, and that referees “might not agree or disagree with the content, but they see this work as a considered position of some academic standing.” If the views of an associate professor expressed in a learned journal come within the scope of the vilification laws, then anything goes. And although this might be one rogue lawyer on a frolic, just the threat of having to defend such an action must have a chilling effect on free speech.

Newhouse was quoted saying: “This is not about academic freedom, it goes to the heart of the right of all Australians to live together in peace and harmony.” But it’s a poor sort of harmony that depends on the suppression of dissenting opinion.