Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) and other members of Florida’s Democratic congressional delegation on Tuesday sent a letter to the University of Florida’s president sharply condemning the school’s move to bar three professors from serving as expert witnesses in a lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis’ (R) voter suppression law.
“We write to express our profound disappointment with the decision to prevent three University of Florida professors from serving as expert witnesses in a lawsuit challenging Florida’s new, restrictive and undemocratic voting rights law,” Florida Democrats wrote.
In addition to Wasserman Schultz, Florida Dem Reps. Kathy Castor, Ted Deutch, Frederica Wilson, Lois Frankel, Charlie Crist, Val Demings, Al Lawson, Stephanie Murphy and Darren Soto signed onto the letter.
No Florida Republican representatives joined.
“As a delegation, there are few values we want to foster and protect more in our public university system than the freedom to speak out against laws that infringe on our fundamental rights as citizens,” the letter continued. “We urge you to reconsider this ‘prior restraint’ on speech that violates the First Amendment as well as the deeply rooted principles of academic freedom that we know you and the University of Florida community hold so dear.”
Last week, the New York Times reported that university officials told three UF professors that because the school is a state institution, participating in a lawsuit against the state is “adverse to U.F.’s interests.” The professors — Daniel A. Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Wright Austin — were asked by the plaintiffs to testify.
The lawsuit itself argues that DeSantis’ voting law — which includes provisions that restrict drop boxes and pose more obstacles to obtaining absentee ballots — will place disproportionate burdens on nonwhite voters.
It is unclear the extent to which the governors’ office is involved in the ban. A top DeSantis ally, Morteza Hosseina, serves as the head of the UF’s board of trustees.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs are seeking to question DeSantis on whether he has a role in the decision.
In their letter, Florida Democrats hit back at the notion that UF’s professors serving as expert witnesses would be “adverse” to the school’s interest, citing professors’ history of testifying in similar cases.
“Since 2012, Professor Smith has repeatedly testified in voting rights cases against the state of Florida. In each instance, it is our understanding that his participation has been approved by the university, and he has been paid for his work,” the letter says. “The decision to change course and only permit pro bono participation provides even greater credence to the assumption that this decision involved politically-motivated viewpoint discrimination.”
The Florida Democrats concluded their letter by urging UF president Kent Fuchs to reverse the school’s decision and allow the three professors to participate in the voting rights lawsuit. Additionally, they sent along a series of questions pressing the university for its rationale for barring the professors from serving as expert witnesses.
“The prospect that the University of Florida would stand on an academic island in this respect would undoubtedly chill its ability to retain and recruit top talent,” the letter says.
Read the letter below: