TALLAHASSEE – Florida’s leading university is preventing three professors from providing expert testimony to groups challenging the controversial new state voting law, a marked reversal that critics say violates First Amendment rights and academic freedom.
Top University of Florida officials have argued that allowing professors to testify in ongoing legal challenges has created a conflict of interest because there are lawsuits 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 failed to challenge a state law restricting the voting rights of convicted criminals.
The decision came at a time when Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Florida Republicans have argued that big tech companies, universities and the Biden administration are trying to suppress and intimidate Conservative rights to free speech online, on campus and at school council meetings.
The new Florida Voting Act, which DeSantis required state lawmakers to support, restricts mailboxes and ballot papers. Democratic groups have condemned the move in response to unfounded allegations by former President Donald Trump about voter fraud during the 2020 election, and say it will disproportionately affect minorities and older voters. The fight for the bill has attracted national groups, including the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senator Committee, which have filed motions to intervene in two federal lawsuits in support of the Voting Act.
The fight over testimony was revealed in Friday’s court application, which was first reported by The New York Times – in which lawyers challenging the new law said they wanted to ask whether the governor’s office was involved in the University of Florida’s decision, indicating a fear that the state is politicizing the higher education institution.
University of Florida professor Daniel Smith, who is currently head of the school’s political science department, was told that “outside activities that may present a conflict of interest to the Florida executive branch create conflict for the University of Florida. ”
In a letter sent to top university officials in October, U.S. Civil Liberties Attorney Daniel Tilley described the decision as “a stunning recognition that not only violates the most basic principles of academic freedom, but also violates the First Amendment’s freedom of speech.” .Smitha. ”
Tilley also stressed in his letter that DeSantis himself had advocated for legislation he said was necessary to protect freedom of expression, including a new law requiring universities to conduct research to measure “differences of opinion” on campuses.
“In fact, with the ban on the speech of dr. Smith University violates a repeatedly expressed freedomthe speech values of the state of Florida and its governor, ”Tilley wrote. “But perhaps most importantly, the UF simply shouldn’t look to Governor DeSantis to decide what speaking activities it will allow its employees and students. This is the exact opposite of the values that universities are supposed to uphold.”
Two other university professors – Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin – were also refused to issue expert testimony. The university stated in its denials that “UF will reject the requests of its employees to participate in external activities once it finds that the activities are detrimental to its interests. Because UF is a state actor, lawsuits against the state are detrimental to UF’s interests.
In a letter to Florida University officials protesting McDonald’s exclusion, Tilley wrote that “in addition to being meaningless – and a disgrace to the values that universities are supposed to stand for – your censorship of Dr. McDonald is unconstitutional.” Dr. McDonald’s testimony would be given in the role of a private citizen and would be of great public importance, and his testimony would be crucial to understanding one of their most valuable rights – the right to vote.
Gainesville-based school officials claimed they did not violate teachers ’rights to freedom of speech.
“The University of Florida has long supported our faculty’s freedom of speech and academic freedom, and we will continue to do so,” University spokeswoman Hessy Fernandez said in an email. “It is important to note that the University has not denied professors Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin the rights or academic freedom of the First Amendment. Instead, the university 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.
Smith was a paid expert on many of the lawsuits that were filed, while both DeSantis and the former governor. Rick Scott were in office, including legal challenges involving re-election, early voting, and the use of Spanish-language ballots.
Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, did not comment and instead provided a copy of one of the court files in the case.
The bill, dubbed “Jim Crow 2.0” by some Democrats, was approved by GOP-led Florida legislation last spring. It also progressed when local election officials, including Republicans, criticized the move after holding smoothly the 2020 election. Several federal lawsuits filed by groups including the Florida Voter League, Florida Rising Together, and the Florida branch NAACP, fighting the new law is illegally directed against elderly and disabled voters and minority voters.
DeSantis is not directly mentioned in related lawsuits challenging the new law, but his office is fighting efforts to provide documents and other information that could show how the law was created and who was involved.
POLITICAL reported a series of internal emails and text messages last month showed that the bill was drafted with the help of Florida Republican Party best lawyer – and that suppressing postal voting requirements was seen as a way for the GOP to erase the advantage Democrats had in voting by mail in the 2020 election. The messages undermined Republicans ’consistent argument that the new law is designed to prevent future election fraud.
Florida was just one of several GOP-controlled states that imposed voting restrictions following Trump’s loss and his unfounded complaints of voter fraud, though not as restrictive as laws passed in Georgia and Texas.