Update: UF released a statement saying it would form a task force to review its conflict of interest policy. Additionally, this article has been updated to reflect that a letter from the professors’ attorney was originally sent to UF.
Three UF political science professors requested to lend their expertise by testifying in a lawsuit against the state of Florida. However, UF turned them down, telling them their participation as expert witnesses is adverse to the university’s interests.
Universities across the country, including UF, have generally allowed professors to offer expert testimony in lawsuits, according to a New York Times report.
The lawsuit challenges a new state law backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that the plaintiffs argue discriminates against voters of color and violates the Voting Rights Act.
The plaintiffs, a coalition of voting rights organizations, claim the law in question limits the ability to vote through a drop box or through mail. Theys requested professor testimonies as expert witnesses as they pursue litigation against Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, according to an NPR report.
UF faculty members are required to “report any outside activities and interests,” where disclosures would be directed for review to the Conflicts of Interest Program in the Office of the Provost, according to the university website. As reported by NPR, when they submitted their reports, professors Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin each received responses prohibiting them from testifying in court.
“The University of Florida has a long track record of supporting free speech and our faculty’s academic freedom, and we will continue to do so,” read a statement released by UF Saturday.
However, the professors’ attorney, Paul Donnelly, wrote in a letter to the university that this decision is unacceptable and chills the exercise of free thought and speech.
“Faculty do not forfeit their First Amendment rights as citizens by accepting an offer of employment with UF,” he wrote to UF.
Donnelly argues testifying does not interfere with any of their job duties and is not a conflict of interest, according to NPR.
The report read that some in positions of power at UF have close ties to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who appointed Secretary Lee to her position. The chair of UF’s Board of Trustees, Morteza “Mori” Hosseini, is a major Republican donor and adviser to DeSantis, according to NPR.
“It is important to note that the university did not deny the First Amendment rights or academic freedom of professors Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin,” UF’s statement read. “Rather, 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.”
Academic freedom experts said they have not heard of professor speech and testimony restrictions like this, according to a New York Times report.
The professors were not immediately available for comment but have been active on social media since the news broke.
McDonald publicized his commitment to fight for his rights through a tweet of a Tom Petty GIF coupled with the lyrics from the classic song Gator fans proudly sing every home football game.
“Well I won’t back down — No I won’t back down,” the GIF read in McDonald’s tweet.
Contact Elena Barrera at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @elenabarreraaa.
Elena is a second-year journalism major with a minor in health sciences. She is currently the University Administration reporter for The Alligator. When she is not writing, Elena loves to work out, go to the beach and spend time with her friends and family.