In Other Ivory Towers: Univ. of Florida blocks faculty from testifying in voting rights case against the state

Ella Marx and Kiara Royer

The University of Florida prohibited three of its professors from serving as expert witnesses in a lawsuit challenging Florida’s new law restricting voter rights, raising concerns about academic freedom and First Amendment rights.

The lawsuit, filed last May by several civil rights organizations against the state, argues that Florida Senate Bill 90, signed by Governor Ron DeSantis, violates the Voting Rights Act and implements voting restrictions that discriminate against Black and Latino voters. The plaintiffs sought to appoint as expert witnesses Daniel Smith, chair of the University of Florida’s political science department; Michael McDonald, a political science scholar specializing in elections; and Sharon Wright Austin, a political science professor focusing on African American political behavior.

Court filings from last Friday reveal that the University of Florida denied all three professors permission to testify, stating that it would be a “conflict of interest,” according to The New York Times

Legal experts said the extraordinary restrictions on the professors’ speech were likely unconstitutional. “The university does not exist to protect the governor,” Robert C. Post, a legal scholar who focuses on the First Amendment, told the Times. “It exists to serve the public. It is an independent institution to serve the public good, and nothing could be more to the public good than a professor telling the truth to the public under oath.”

In a partial reversal on Monday, UF announced that it would allow the professors to testify if they aren’t paid and do so without using university resources, CNN reported. After a wave of criticism, the university also announced the creation of a task force to review its conflict of interest policy.

In response to McDonald and Austin’s requests to testify, the university wrote that the “litigation against the state is adverse to UF’s interests.” Regarding Smith, the university stated, “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.”

Florida’s new voting law was a priority for DeSantis, who tweeted in May that the law would “ensure that Florida remains a national leader on election security, ballot integrity, and the protection of every vote.” Morteza Hosseini — chair of UF’s board of trustees — is an adviser who helped lead DeSantis’s transition team after his 2018 gubernatorial victory, according to the Times.

The university’s refusal to allow the professors to testify mark a sharp turnaround compared to previous conflict of interest decisions. Various faculty members and academic experts, including Smith, have been allowed to testify in Florida court cases in the past, even if they disagreed with the concerns of the political party in power.

Hessy Fernandez, a spokeswoman for the university, defended the school’s decision, telling the Times that the “university did not deny the First Amendment rights or academic freedom” of the professors. Rather, she said,  “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 Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a free speech advocacy organization, wrote a letter to the President of UF that condemned the prohibition and called on the university to reverse the decision. 

“Restricting faculty members from participating in a judicial proceeding as expert witnesses is a profound violation of their First Amendment rights and academic freedom,” the letter states.