TALLAHASSEE – Flagship Florida University bars three professors from providing expert testimony to groups challenging the state’s controversial new election law, a marked turnaround that critics say is a violation of First Amendment rights and academic freedom.
Senior officials at the University of Florida have claimed that allowing professors to testify in ongoing legal challenges creates a conflict of interest because the lawsuits are against the state. But the university had previously allowed one of its professors to provide detailed testimony and analysis in other lawsuits, including one that unsuccessfully challenged state law that limited the right to vote to convicted felons.
The move comes at a time when Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Florida Republicans have claimed that big tech companies, universities and the Biden administration are trying to stifle and intimidate the free speech rights of curators online, on campus and at school board meetings.
Florida’s new election law, which DeSantis had urged state lawmakers to support, places restrictions on drop boxes and mail-in ballots. Democratic groups condemned the measure in response to former President Donald Trump’s baseless allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 election and said it would have a disproportionate impact on minority and elderly voters. The fight for the law drew national groups, including the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senate Committee, who filed motions to intervene in two federal lawsuits in favor of the election law.
The dispute over the testimony was revealed in a Friday court file – which was first reported by The New York Times – in which lawyers challenging the new law said they wanted to ask if the governor’s office was involved in the University of Florida decision, signaling fear the state would politicize a higher education institution.
University of Florida professor Daniel Smith, who currently heads 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 creates conflict for the University of Florida. “
In a letter sent to senior university officials in October, American Civil Liberties Union of Florida attorney Daniel Tilley called the decision a “mind-boggling admission that not only violates the most basic principles of law and order. academic freedom, but also violates Dr. Smith’s First Amendment freedom of speech. “
Tilley also pointed out in his letter that DeSantis himself is championing legislation that he believes is necessary to protect freedom of expression, including a new law that requires universities to conduct a survey to measure “diversity of the point. of view ”on campuses.
“It is indeed by banning Dr. Smith’s speech that the University violates the freedom expressed on many occasions.the speech values of the state of Florida and its governor, ”Tilley wrote. “But perhaps more importantly, UF should simply not look to Governor DeSantis to decide what speech activities he will allow his employees and students to engage in. This is precisely the opposite of the values that universities are supposed to defend. “
Two other university professors – Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin – were also denied permission to testify as an expert. The university said in its denials that “UF will refuse requests from its employees to engage in outside activities when it determines that the activities are contrary to its interests. As UF is a state actor, litigation against the state is against the interests of UF.
In a letter to officials at the University of Florida protesting the exclusion from McDonald’s, Tilley wrote “beyond being absurd – and an embarrassment for the values universities are supposed to uphold – your censorship of Dr. McDonald is unconstitutional. Dr. McDonald’s expert testimony would be given in his capacity as a private citizen and would relate to a matter of great public interest. In addition, his testimony would be crucial for the public to understand one of their most precious rights: the right to vote.
Officials at the Gainesville-based school said they did not violate teachers’ free speech rights.
“The University of Florida has a long history of supporting free speech and academic freedom for our faculty, and we will continue to do so,” university spokesperson Hessy Fernandez said in an email. “It is important to note that the university has not denied the First Amendment rights or the academic freedom of Professors Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin. On the contrary, the university has refused requests from these full-time employees to undertake paid work outside the home that is contrary to the interests of the university as an institution of the State of Florida.
Smith has been a paid expert on numerous lawsuits that were filed while DeSantis and former Governor Rick Scott were in office, including court challenges involving redistribution, early voting and the use of Spanish ballots.
Christina Pushaw, spokesperson for DeSantis, did not comment and simply provided a copy of one of the documents filed in court in the case.
The law – labeled “Jim Crow 2.0” by some Democrats – was approved by the Florida GOP-led legislature last spring. He argued even as local election officials, including Republicans, criticized the measure after it ran a smooth 2020 election. Several federal lawsuits filed by groups such as the League of Women Voters of Florida, Florida Rising Together and the Florida branch of the NAACP are challenging the new law illegally targeting elderly and disabled voters as well as minority voters.
DeSantis is not directly named in the related lawsuits challenging the new law, but his office is fighting efforts to hand over documents and other information that could show how the law was created and who was involved.
POLITICO reported last month that a series of internal emails and texts showed the law was drafted with the help of Florida’s top Republican Party attorney – and a crackdown on mail-in vote requests was seen as a way for the GOP to erase the advantage Democrats had in postal voting in the 2020 election. The posts undermine the constant argument made by Republicans that the new law was intended to prevent future fraud election.
Florida was just one of many GOP-controlled states that passed voting restrictions in the wake of Trump’s loss and his unsubstantiated complaints about voter fraud, though not so restrictive than the laws passed in Georgia and Texas.