Three professors at the University of Florida were barred from assisting the plaintiffs a lawsuit to repeal a new state law restriction of voting rights, lawyers in the role of federal court said on Friday. The ban is an extraordinary restriction on speech that raises questions about academic freedom and the rights of the First Amendment.
University officials told the trio that participating in a lawsuit against the state because the school is a state institution is “detrimental to UF’s interests” and is not allowed. In their application, attorneys wanted to question Republican Ron DeSantis as to whether he was involved in the decision.
Mr DeSantis resisted the hearing and argued that all his communications about the law were protected from disclosure because discussions of the legislation were privileged. In their application Friday, the plaintiffs’ attorneys said federal issues in the case – including whether the law discriminates against minority groups – prevail over any state protection.
The university’s refusal to allow professors to testify was a marked reversal for the University of Florida. Like schools across the country, the university has regularly allowed academic professionals to offer expert testimony in lawsuits, even if they run counter to the interests of the political party in power.
Leading experts on academic freedom said they were unaware of similar restrictions on the speech and testimony of professors, and said the act was likely unconstitutional.
University spokeswoman Hessy Fernandez defended the bans, saying in a statement that the school has “a long past in support of our faculty’s freedom of speech and academic freedom, and we will continue to do so.”
She added: “The University has not denied the rights or academic freedom of the First Amendment” to professors, she said. “In contrast, the university has rejected requests from these full-time employees to perform paid work outside, which is contrary to the interests of the university as an institution in Florida.”
Mr DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
One of the professors in his last role, Daniel A. Smith, testified with the permission of the University of Florida in two lawsuits about voting rights against the Republican-led Florida government in 2018. One lawsuit forced the state to provide ballot papers in Spanish for Spanish voters. The other rolled over prohibition of the state at early voting polls on university campuses in Florida.
But university officials reversed after a coalition of advocacy and electoral rights groups sued in May to block voting restrictions imposed this year by the state legislature under the control of the Republicans. Among other provisions, the new law severely restricts the use of ballot boxes, makes it more difficult to obtain absentee ballots, and sets new requirements for voter registration facilities.
Plaintiffs argue, among other things, that the law disproportionately limits the ability of black and Latin American voters to cast ballots.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys sought to hire three University of Florida political scientists as expert witnesses: Dr. Smith, Head of the Department of Political Science, University; Michael McDonald, a nationally recognized election expert; in Sharon Wright Austin, which studies the political behavior of African Americans.
Upon the rejection of the application of dr. Smith, Dean of the University College of Arts and Sciences David E. Richardson wrote that “external activities that could represent a conflict of interest for the Florida executive branch create conflict for the University of Florida.” The vice president of the university oversaw the conflict of interest. , issued the other two rejections.
One of the plaintiffs’ attorney in the case, Kira Romero-Craft, said the reasoning was “contrary to the core of what the University of Florida should be committed to in terms of academic freedom.”
“It makes sense to us to understand whether the governor’s executive office played any role in participating in that decision,” she said.
The author of two books on academic freedom, Henry Reichman, called the new state restrictions “crazy.”
“The overall purpose of university and academic freedom is to give scholars the freedom to conduct research,” said Mr. Reichman, an emeritus professor of history at California State University in East Bay. “The ultimate logic of this is that you can be an expert in the United States, except in the country where you actually work and the state pays you.”
Robert C. Post, a professor at Yale Law School and an expert on academic freedom and the First Amendment, said he knew of no other case in which the university had previously restricted 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 that serves the public good, and nothing can be more for the public good than a professor who swears the truth to the public.
Why the university changed its position is not clear, but it seems that the request of the professors to question Governor DeSantis is to find out whether the school administration acted under pressure.
The new voting restrictions in the country were a priority for Mr DeSantis, who signed in front of a crowd of supporters of former President Donald J. Trump at a ceremony broadcast by Fox News. Local journalists were excluded from the event.
The governor had previously described the 2020 election as the most efficient and safest in Florida history, but said he was calling for stricter election rules because “we can’t rest on our laurels”.
Mr. DeSantis has close allies at the University of Florida. Morteza Hosseini, head of the school’s board of directors, is a major Republican donor and advisor to DeSantis, who co-chaired the transition group set up after the 2018 governor’s victory.
Two men hit the headlines this week when Gainesville Sun reported that Mr. Hosseini, known as Mori, arranged for the University of Florida to hire and assign a mandate this fall controversial UCLA professor, dr. Joseph Ladapo, in just two weeks. Mr. DeSantis quickly appointed Dr. Ladapa for state general surgeon.
The views of dr. Covid-19 protection lads such as vaccination and masking are in line with Mr DeSantis ’views, but strongly contrary to federal guidelines. His first act on the post was to ban schools in Florida from quarantining students exposed to Covid-19 until they show symptoms of the disease.
In a letter to university officials dated Oct. 13, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union branch in Florida noted that Mr. DeSantis signed legislation this year requiring universities to assess the state of academic freedom each year and ensure students hear different views . , including those with whom they disagree.
Apart from the professors ’testimony, it contradicts these principles, the letter said, adding that the university“ simply should not look to Governor DeSantis to decide which speaking activities it will engage in. This is the exact opposite of the values for which consider that universities represent. “