The University of Florida has taken a step back from its initial prohibition of three faculty testifying in lawsuit that challenges a recent Florida law limiting voting opportunities in the state.
The university’s new position is that the three professors who were first told they could not testify as expert witnesses against the state can testify, as long as they are not paid for doing so.
The university had barred the three professors from testifying in a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the state’s new voting law, claiming that because the University of Florida was a state institution, the faculty could not testify as experts in the lawsuit because it would be “adverse to U.F.’s interests.”
Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit had sought to hire three political scientists as expert witnesses to bolster their case that Florida’s recently passed voting law unconstitutionally discriminates against minorities and other groups because it creates major obstacles to vote-by-mail, limits access to drop boxes, and criminalizes activities such as providing water to citizens who are waiting in line to vote. The law had been enthusiastically promoted by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R).
The three faculty who were banned from testifying were all professors in the department of political science: Daniel Smith, chair of the department; Michael McDonald, a nationally recognized expert on elections; and Professor Sharon Wright Austin, who specializes in African American political behavior.
But on Monday, University of Florida President Kent Fuchs and Provost Joe Glover wrote a message to the campus that attempted to cast the university’s original ban as one that was based on concerns about conflict of interests as opposed to a restriction of free speech rights or a violation of academic freedom.
In their message, Fuchs and Glover asserted the university’s commitment to the right to free speech and to faculty members’ academic freedom, adding that “Nothing is more fundamental to our existence as an institution of higher learning than these two bedrock principles.”
They also indicated that were appointing a task force to review the university’s conflict of interest policy and “examine it for consistency and fidelity.”
Their statement concluded with the assurance that “if the professors wish to testify pro bono on their own time without using university resources, they are free to do so.”
It’s unlikely that this recent clarification will satisfy the many critics – both inside and outside the academy – who saw the university’s ban of the professors from testifying as a dangerous, possibly unconstitutional, precedent. Instead of clarifying the situation, the new statement further complicates it.
What exactly does this approval of pro bono testimony mean? Is it a blanket policy that expert testimony by the university’s faculty will be permitted only if they offer it for free? If so, that’s still an unacceptable restriction, and the University of Florida will have a hard time continuing to defend it.
Or does the institution’s permission or prohibition depend somehow on the content of the testimony? Does it boil down to this: If the faculty’s expert opinion is favored by the powers to be, he or she can be paid for the work, but if the testimony is somehow disapproved by university or state officials, it must be pro bono? If so, that would appear to be a clear violation of the first amendment.
And still unclear and unaddressed by university administrators is how the three expert’s testimony was “adverse” to the University of Florida in the first place. The lawsuit did not involve any action or policy of the university. It alleged no wrongdoing by the institution or any of its officials. It did not claim that the institution was responsible for any damages. Where exactly is the adversity?
The University of Florida’s latest position will do little to calm the stormy waters its stirred up with the initial ban. Instead, it draws further attention to just how untenable its position remains.
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