University of Florida bans professors from testifying in legal action

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In a decision that could have far-reaching implications for free speech for faculty at Florida universities and colleges, the University of Florida has refused to allow three political science professors to continue serving as expert witnesses in a court case. case that challenges a new state law restricting access to voting.

Political science professors Daniel Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin, two of whom have previously been expert witnesses in anti-state cases, were emailed this month that their requests for expertise would now be denied. They were seeking leave to testify in the case challenging Senate Bill 90, passed by the GOP-controlled Florida legislature following the 2020 election.

“Outside activities which may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the State of Florida create a conflict for the University of Florida,” wrote David Richardson, dean of the UF College of Arts and Sciences. in response to Smith’s request.

Smith is the chairman of UF’s political science department, McDonald’s is a national electoral expert, and Austin studies the political behavior of African Americans.

Gary Wimsett, UF’s assistant vice president for conflict of interest, provided a similar response to McDonald and Austin.

“UF will refuse requests from its employees to engage in outside activities when it determines that the activities are contrary to its interests,” Wimsett’s rejection to McDonald and Austin reads. “Since UF is a state actor, lawsuits against the state are against UF’s interests. “

Paul Donnelly, an attorney for the professors, called the UF’s decision “retaliation” which “strikes at the very heart of academic freedom” and infringes on their rights to free speech.

“This is a deep, frightening and frightening policy change,” Donnelly said. “What if another party was in control and could engage in this kind of censorship?” “

Donnelly said lawyers for the plaintiffs in the voting rights case brought by Florida Rising and other voting rights groups raised their concerns in a document filed with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida.

He said he hopes the federal judge will address their concerns and UF will change his position, but if not, he will consider taking legal action in federal court, arguing that freedom academic and First Amendment rights are being violated, and would seek prior injunction.

In a press release sent to Time / Herald by UF vice president for communications, Steve Orlando, the school denied that it violated professors’ free speech rights.

“The University of Florida has a long history of supporting free speech and academic freedom in our faculty, and we will continue to do so.

“It is important to note that the university has not denied the First Amendment rights or the academic freedom of Professors Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin. On the contrary, the university has refused requests from these full-time employees to undertake paid work outside the home that is contrary to the interests of the university as an institution of the State of Florida.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In an Oct. 13 letter to Wimsett, ACLU attorney Daniel Tilley told the university that “there is no doubt that Dr Smith would speak in his capacity as a private citizen, and not as a as a university employee ”. Tilley also argued that Smith should be allowed to testify because the issue is one of the great public concerns.

“The principles of academic freedom greatly reduce the scope of the legitimate prerogative of government to the discourse of police professors on matters of public interest,” he wrote.

The United Faculty of Florida, The union representing 25,000 higher education professionals, condemned the decision in an email to university officials on Tuesday, and again in a statement released after an article on the matter was first published on Friday evening by the New York Times.

“We stand in solidarity with our members and their duty to share their expertise for the public good,” the union said in a statement. “We support all Floridians and their right to criticize their government.”

Austin, a full professor, said black women like herself made up just 2% of full professors nationwide and that she would fight for the right to speak out. She urged UF “not to give in to pressure from outside state-wide forces.”

“A black southerner who does not fight for the right to vote is a betrayal of her community,” Austin said in the union press release. “I refuse to teach my students that it is important to fight for the right to vote and civil rights and not to fight for these rights myself.”

Smith also vowed to fight.

“We will not back down from this attack on our First Amendment rights to speak at our own pace, on matters of great public importance,” he said in a press release.

Professors have offered expert testimony in numerous lawsuits, and Smith and McDonald have also provided expertise in previous cases against the state of Florida.

A week before McDonald’s was denied his application to become an expert, Smith, who is chair of the University of Florida’s political science department, and McDonald, a redistribution expert who is also a professor in the department, wrote a op- ed published in the Tampa Bay Times accusing Republican leaders of using outside contracts to intentionally protect public redistribution data and mapping details.

Lawmakers vigorously denied the claims and called for the column to be retracted.

Donnelly now says the timing of what he sees as retaliation matters.

“When someone engages in an activity protected by the First Amendment, as the professors did with the opinion piece or with their testimony, if unconstitutional action is taken by the government nearby, it is is evidence of a violation of constitutional rights. ” ‘ he said.

Smith was initially told he could no longer participate as an expert witness in July, according to correspondence included in documents filed with federal court. But the denials for McDonald’s and Austin came after the editorial.

Senate Bill 90 made changes to state election laws, including restricting the use of ballot boxes and banning people from possessing more than two postal ballots, which was already illegal in the United States. Miami-Dade County.

The plaintiffs in this case argue that the law is unconstitutional and designed to suppress the vote of minorities. Last week, the state asked a federal judge to block subpoenas that would require seven Republican lawmakers and a representative from the DeSantis office to testify about their role in creating the law. The governor’s office claimed that executive privilege prevented his office from testifying.

Smith was the most prolific of the three professors in his work with experts challenging the government of the Republican-controlled state.

He was a key figure in the litigation surrounding Amendment 4, the constitutional amendment adopted by Floridians in 2018 allowing almost anyone convicted of felony the right to vote, provided they have met “all the conditions.” of their sentence.

Initially hailed as one of the country’s biggest civil rights expansions in decades, it was slashed when the state legislature, at the insistence of DeSantis, passed a law clearly defining “all the terms” of punishment by requiring criminals to pay all court debts before they can vote.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups filed a lawsuit claiming the bill was unconstitutional. The ACLU hired Smith to study the effects of the bill and he put together the most comprehensive known database of Florida criminals and concluded that almost 80% of them could not vote because they owed legal costs, fines or compensation to the victims. Most owed more than $ 1,000, an amount beyond the reach of those already struggling to find work after being convicted of a felony.

“The game is stacked against them,” Smith said.

A federal judge in Tallahassee opposed the state, but the decision was overturned by an Atlanta appeals court.

Ahead of the 2020 election, Smith was an expert on mail-in ballots and in a lawsuit that required the state to provide Spanish ballots to Hispanic voters. He provided a written report to the League of Women Voters to expand early voting in Florida and testified against UF in a case that resulted in the overturning of a ban on early voting locations on Florida college campuses.

From 2012 to 2014, Smith provided analysis and testimony in connection with the redistribution lawsuit brought by the League of Women Voters and other plaintiffs.

Donnelly said he had worked with University of Florida faculty as expert witnesses for three decades. He said that work has always been encouraged by the university and has been a way for professors to increase their salaries.

“At the University of Florida, it brings more fame and respect to the university and they are professors working for public institutions, so the salary is generally not comparable to that of private institutions,” he said. -he declares. “So he was regularly encouraged. “

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