Univ. Of Florida Drops Ban On Professors Testifying Against GOP Voting Restrictions

Gainesville, University of Florida, campus entrance with students. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The University of Florida has backed off of prohibiting several professors from testifying against new voter restrictions in the state. 

The reversal followed a week of turmoil at the university after news broke that three professors who’d sought to serve as expert witnesses in a lawsuit over Florida’s restrictive new voting laws, which Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed during a Fox News appearance over the summer, had been prevented from doing so.

The professors were disapproved to testify in the suit because the university determined that the activity was “adverse to its interests.” 

“As UF is a state actor, litigation against the state is adverse to UF’s interest,” the university told the academics, in a move that alarmed free speech advocates around the country. 

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University of Florida President Kent Fuchs announced Friday’s reversal in a letter that also mentioned a new task force to review the university’s practice for requesting approval for outside activities. 

“Without prejudice regarding the task force recommendations, I have also asked UF’s Conflicts of Interest Office 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,” he wrote. 

That went further than a previous announcement from Fuchs, who said Monday that the three professors could testify only if they did so without pay.

Shortly after Fuch’s announcement, one of the three professors who’d sought to serve as an expert witness in the suit over the new voting laws, Michael McDonald, posted the notice that the decision regarding his particular case had been reversed. 

“The previous institutional decision is reversed per President Fuch’s directive on November 5, 2021,” the comment from Gary Wimsett, assistant vice president for conflicts of interest, read.

The two other professors affected by the initial decision, Daniel A. Smith and Sharon Wright Austin, did not immediately return TPM’s request to confirm if they’d seen a similar reversal.

After the New York Times broke the initial news regarding the three professors, the Tampa Bay Times found other instances when professors’ requests to participate in lawsuits had been denied, including a request from Jeffrey Goldhagen, a professor and pediatrician, to testify against a state ban on school mask mandates.

“This is not about a few faculty members. This is fundamentally about academic freedom, First Amendment rights, the sanctity of institutions in the state and the sanctity of institutions in the country,” Goldhagen told a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education, referring to Friday’s news.

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