Three University of Florida professors have been barred from helping plaintiffs in a lawsuit to overturn the new state law restrict voting rights, lawyers said on Friday in a case filed in federal court. The ban is an extraordinary limit on speech that raises questions about academic freedom and First Amendment rights.
University officials told the three that because the school was a state institution, participating in a lawsuit against the state “is against UF’s interests” and could not be allowed. In their case, lawyers sought to question Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, to see if he was involved in the decision.
Mr DeSantis resisted questions, arguing that all of his communications about the law are protected from disclosure because discussions about the law are confidential. In their Friday filing, lawyers for the plaintiffs said federal questions in the case – including whether the law discriminates against minority groups – outweigh state protections.
The university’s refusal to allow professors to testify marked a turning point for the University of Florida. Like schools nationwide, the university has routinely allowed academic experts to offer expert testimony in prosecution, even when they oppose the interests of the ruling political party.
Leading scholars on academic freedom said they were unaware of any similar restrictions on professors’ speech and testimony and said the action was likely unconstitutional.
University spokeswoman Hessy Fernandez defended the bans, saying in a statement that the school “has a long history of supporting free speech and academic freedom at our faculty, and we will continue to do so “.
She added, “The university has not denied the First Amendment rights or academic freedom” of professors, she said. “On the contrary, the university has refused requests from these full-time employees to undertake paid work outside the interests of the university as an institution of the State of Florida.”
Mr. DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
One of the professors in the latest case, Daniel A. Smith, testified with permission from the University of Florida in two voting rights lawsuits against the Florida Republican-led government in 2018. A lawsuit forced the state to provide ballots in Spanish for Hispanic voters. The other overthrown a state-imposed ban at early polls on Florida college campuses.
But university officials backed down after a coalition of voting rights and voting rights groups sued in May to block voting restrictions enacted this year by the US legislature. State controlled by Republicans. Among other provisions, the new law severely limits the use of ballot boxes, makes it more difficult to obtain postal ballots and places new requirements on voter registration campaigns.
Among other allegations, the plaintiffs argue that the law disproportionately limits the ability of black and Hispanic voters to vote.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs sought to hire three political scientists from the University of Florida as expert witnesses: Dr Smith, the chairman of the university’s political science department; Michael mcdonald, a nationally recognized election specialist; and Sharon Wright Austin, who studies African-American political behavior.
In rejecting Dr. Smith’s request, the dean of the university’s College of Arts and Sciences, David E. Richardson, wrote that “outside activities which may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the state from Florida create conflict for the university. from Florida. A university vice-president overseeing conflicts of interest issued the other two refusals.
An attorney for the plaintiffs in this case, Kira Romero-Craft, said the reasoning “flies in the face of what the University of Florida should stand for in terms of academic freedom.”
“It seems reasonable to us to understand whether the governor’s executive office played a role in participating in this decision,” she said.
The author of two books on academic freedom, Henry Reichman, called the state’s new restrictions “crazy.”
“The goal of a university and academic freedom is to allow academics to conduct research freely,” said Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University, East Bay. “The ultimate logic of this is that you can be an expert in the United States, except in the state where you actually work and get paid by the state.”
Robert C. Post, a professor at Yale Law School and an expert on academic freedom and the First Amendment, said he was unaware of any other case in which a university had placed a prior restriction on a professor’s ability to speak. .
“The university does not exist to protect the governor,” he said. “It exists to serve the public. It is an independent institution to serve the public good, and nothing could be more for the public good than a professor telling the public the truth under oath.
It’s unclear why the university reversed its position, but the professors’ request to question Governor DeSantis appears to be aimed at finding out whether the school administrators acted under pressure.
The state’s new voting restrictions were a priority for Mr DeSantis, who enacted them in front of a crowd of supporters of former President Donald J. Trump in a ceremony broadcast by Fox News. Local journalists were excluded from the event.
The governor previously described the 2020 election as the most efficient and secure in Florida history, but said he called for stricter voting rules because “we cannot rest on our laurels. “.
Mr. DeSantis has close allies at the University of Florida. The school’s board chair, Morteza Hosseini, is a major Republican Party donor and advisor to DeSantis who co-chaired a transition team formed after the governor’s victory in 2018.
Both men made headlines this week when The Gainesville Sun reported that Mr. Hosseini, known as Mori, had arranged this fall for the University of Florida to hire and grant tenure to a controversial UCLA professor, Dr Joseph Ladapo, in just two weeks. Mr. DeSantis quickly appointed Dr. Ladapo the general surgeon of the state.
Dr Ladapo’s views on Covid-19 protections such as vaccinations and masking are consistent with those of Mr DeSantis but strongly at odds with federal guidelines. His first act in that position was to ban schools in Florida from quarantining students exposed to Covid-19 as long as they showed no symptoms of illness.
In an Oct. 13 letter to university officials, the legal director of the Florida branch of the American Civil Liberties Union noted that Mr. DeSantis had signed a law this year requiring universities to assess the condition annually. academic freedom and ensure that students hear diverse points of view. , including those they disagree with.
Unless the professors’ testimony is contrary to these very principles, the letter said, adding that the university “simply should not look to Governor DeSantis to decide which speech-making activities it will engage in.” is precisely the opposite of the values that universities are considered to uphold.