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University of Florida Reverses Decision on Professors

They will be allowed to provide testimony on voting-rights issue
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 31, 2021 5:45 AM CDT
Updated Nov 5, 2021 1:00 PM CDT
Florida Professors Can't Testify on Voting Rights
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis flanked by Attorney General Ashley Moody and supporters   (Calvin Knight/The Ledger via AP)

(Newser)

Update: Reversing its previous position, the University of Florida said Friday that it would allow professors to testify as experts in a lawsuit challenging a new state law that critics say restricts voting rights, per the AP. The university last month had said that the three professors were prohibited from testifying in the lawsuit brought by civic groups since doing so would put the school in conflict with the administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, which pushed the election law. University president Kent Fuchs said the outside work would have to be on the professors’ own time and not use university resources. Our original story from Oct. 31 follows:

story continues below

The University of Florida is prohibiting three professors from providing expert testimony in a lawsuit challenging a new law that critics claim restricts voting rights, saying it goes against the school's interest by conflicting with the administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Though the decision is being criticized as threat to academic freedom and free speech, the university said in a statement Saturday that allowing professors Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin to serve as paid experts for plaintiffs challenging the law would be “adverse to the university’s interests as a state of Florida institution," per the AP. Lawyers for a coalition of civic groups challenging the law said the professors were told by the university that their expert testimony would dissent from the administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, creating a conflict for the school.

“UF will deny its employees’ requests to engage in outside activities when it determines the activities are adverse to its interests. As UF is a state actor, litigation against the state is adverse to UF’s interests," according to an email from an assistant vice president at the university to McDonald that was filed with the court documents. Another university official said in an email to Smith that “outside activities that may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the State of Florida create a conflict for the University of Florida." Attorneys for the professors said Saturday that they would take legal action claiming violations of the First Amendment and academic freedom if the school doesn't reverse the decision.

“The university cannot silence the professors on matters of great public importance. These professors are citizens entitled to participate in the marketplace of ideas," attorneys Paul Donnelly and Conor Flynn said in a letter to a university lawyer. “These unlawful restrictions are shameful, and could very well deter top scholars from joining UF’s ranks." The legal director of the ACLU of Florida, writing on behalf of Smith, said the professor was acting as a private citizen and his testimony would be crucial to the public in understanding “one of their most valuable rights." “But perhaps most importantly, UF simply should not be looking to Governor DeSantis to decide which speech activities it will permit its employees and students to engage in," the ACLU's Daniel Tilley wrote to university officials.
(Read more Florida stories.)

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