TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s flagship university is under fire for violating the free speech rights of three professors it blocked from testifying in a lawsuit challenging the state’s new law voting restrictions.
Top University of Florida officials asserted that it was a conflict of interest for professors to testify in the lawsuit because they’re state employees. It’s a notable turnaround in university policy, which for years allowed professors to testify in lawsuits against the state — including one that unsuccessfully challenged the state law that restricted voting rights for convicted felons.
The decision comes at a time when Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Florida Republicans have asserted that big tech companies, universities and the Biden administration are trying to squelch and intimidate the free speech rights of conservatives online, on campus and at school board meetings.
"As Americans, we have a First Amendment right to exercise our free speech on our own time. We will not back down from the University of Florida's decision," said Michael McDonald, a UF political science professor who was one of the three blocked from testifying in the suit.
Florida’s new voting law — which Republicans discussed as a way to give them a competitive edge against Democrats — was passed at DeSantis’s behest. It places restrictions on drop boxes and mail-in ballots. Democratic groups have condemned the measure as a response to former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud during the 2020 election and say it will disproportionately impact minority and elderly voters. The fight over the law has drawn in national groups, including the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which filed motions to intervene in two federal suits in support of the voting law.
The battle over the testimony was revealed in a Friday court filing, which was first reported by The New York Times, in which lawyers challenging the new law said they want to ask whether the governor’s office was involved in University of Florida’s decision, signaling a fear that the state is politicizing a higher learning institution.
University of Florida professor Daniel Smith, who is currently the head of the school’s political science department, was told 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.”
In a letter sent to top university officials in October, American Civil Liberties Union of Florida attorney Daniel Tilley called the decision “a breathtaking admission that not only contravenes the most basic principles of academic freedom but also violates Dr. Smith’s First Amendment freedom to speak.”
Tilley also pointed out in his letter that DeSantis himself championed legislation that he said was needed to protect freedom of expression, including a new law that requires universities to do a survey to measure “viewpoint diversity” on campuses.
“It is actually by prohibiting Dr. Smith’s speech that the University is contravening the repeatedly expressed freespeech values of the State of Florida and its Governor,” Tilley wrote. “But perhaps most importantly, UF simply should not be looking to Governor DeSantis to decide which speech activities it will permits its employees and students to engage in. That is precisely the opposite of the values that universities are thought to stand for.”
The third professor muzzled by the university is Sharon Austin, an expert in Black voters. The university stated in its denials that “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.”
In a letter to University of Florida officials protesting McDonald’s exclusion, Tilley wrote “beyond being nonsensical — and an embarrassment to the values that universities are thought to stand for — your censorship of Dr. McDonald is unconstitutional. Dr. McDonald’s expert testimony would be given in his capacity as a private citizen and would be on a matter of great public concern. Moreover, his testimony would be crucial to the public’s understanding of one of their most valuable rights — the right to vote.”
Officials with the Gainesville-based school contended they were not violating the free speech rights of the professors.
“The University of Florida has a long track record of supporting free speech and our faculty’s academic freedom, and we will continue to do so,” said Hessy Fernandez, a university spokesperson, in an email. “It is important to note that the university did not deny the First Amendment rights or academic freedom of professors Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin. Rather, the university denied requests of these full-time employees to undertake outside paid work that is adverse to the university’s interests as a state of Florida institution.”
The United Faculty of Florida, the union representing thousands of faculty members at the state's public universities, rejected the university’s “outrageous claim” that the professors expert testimony poses a conflict.
"UF does not exist to protect @GovRonDeSantis or any party," it posted on Twitter.
Smith has been a paid expert for numerous lawsuits that have been filed while both DeSantis and former Gov. Rick Scott were in office, including legal challenges involving redistricting, early voting and the use of Spanish-language ballots.
Christina Pushaw, a spokesperson for DeSantis, did not comment and instead just provided a copy of one of the court filings in the case.
The law — labeled “Jim Crow 2.0” by some Democrats — was approved by Florida’s GOP-led Legislature last spring. It advanced even as local election officials, including Republicans, criticized the measure after running a trouble-free election in 2020. Several federal lawsuits filed by groups including the League of Women Voters of Florida, Florida Rising Together and the Florida branch of the NAACP contend the new law illegally targets elderly and disabled voters as well as minority voters.
DeSantis is not directly named in the linked lawsuits challenging the new law, but his office is fighting against efforts to turn over documents and other information that might show how the law was created and who was involved.
POLITICO reported last month a raft of internal emails and text messages showed the law was drafted with the help of the Republican Party of Florida’s top lawyer — and that a crackdown on mail-in ballot requests was seen as a way for the GOP to erase the edge that Democrats had in mail-in voting during the 2020 election. The messages undercut the consistent argument made by Republicans that the new law was about preventing future electoral fraud.
Florida was just one of several GOP-controlled states that enacted voting restrictions in the aftermath of Trump’s loss and his unsubstantiated complaints about voter fraud, although it isn’t as restrictive as laws passed in Georgia and Texas.
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