University of Florida Reverses Course to Allow Professors to Testify Against State
Facing a storm of protest, the university said three professors could testify as expert witnesses in a voting-rights lawsuit against the state.,
Acceding to a storm of protest, the University of Florida abandoned efforts on Friday to keep three political science professors from testifying in a voting-rights lawsuit against the administration of Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The reversal came less than a day after Mr. DeSantis’s office had lined up behind the university’s policy, saying in a statement that the professors’ First Amendment right to speak freely was not relevant because they were being paid to act as expert witnesses in the case.
The university came under intense criticism a week ago when a federal court filing in the case revealed that the professors, Daniel A. Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon D. Wright Austin, had been barred from participating in the case, which seeks to overturn restrictions on voting that Mr. DeSantis signed into law in May.
Officials said their work as expert witnesses for plaintiffs in the suit created a conflict of interest for the university, which is state-funded. But free-speech experts and professors nationwide denounced the decision as a dangerous infringement on long-settled principles of academic freedom, and said the move smacked of political meddling by the state’s Republican government.
Mr. DeSantis denied any role in the decision, but he has made no secret of his view that the state’s university faculty operates as an arm of a liberal establishment opposed to his political positions.
The university’s president, Kent Fuchs, dropped that position on Friday in an email distributed campuswide. He stated that he had asked officials “to reverse the decisions on recent requests by UF employees to serve as expert witnesses in litigation in which the state of Florida is a party and to approve the requests regardless of personal compensation, assuming the activity is on their own time without using university resources.”
Mr. Fuchs appointed a task force of seven university officials, including the provost, deans of the journalism and law schools, and the university’s chief ethics and privacy officer, to review conflict-of-interest policies and determine how requests to testify would be handled in the future.
The concession appeared to be an unqualified victory for the three professors, all nationally known experts in their fields. Professors Smith and McDonald have frequently testified in election and voting-rights cases nationwide. Professor Austin is an expert on African American political behavior and the author of a number of books on that and related topics.