Education

U of Florida bars professors from helping lawsuit against state

The University of Florida banned three professors from helping the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state opposing Florida’s new restrictions on voting rights.

The move stunned faculty advocates, who said it raises serious questions about academic freedom and (because Florida is a public institution) the First Amendment.

The new law is among a series of measures introduced in Republican-led states in recent years. It limits the use of drop boxes for voting and makes it more difficult to obtain absentee ballots. Defending the law from suits has been a major goal of Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican.

“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,” the university said in a statement explaining its actions. “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. 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.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education issued a statement saying it was “deeply concerned” by the decision.

“FIRE has said it before, and we’ll say it again: The profound civic importance of fair trials requires the ability of fact and expert witnesses to come forward to testify truthfully without fear that their government employer might retaliate against them,” the statement said. “Public university faculty are no exception. We call on UF to reverse course immediately.”

The statement noted that Plymouth State University, in New Hampshire, fired an adjunct instructor after she testified in a criminal proceeding in 2019. The instructor, Nancy Strapko, threatened to sue — and the university paid her to settle.

“UF should be aware that Plymouth State University’s ill-considered decision to punish faculty who had testified in a trial ultimately cost the state of New Hampshire’s taxpayers $350,000. FIRE warned Plymouth State then, and we’re warning UF now: If you pick a fight with the First Amendment, you will lose,” the FIRE statement said.

Michael A. Olivas, an expert on higher education law who recently retired from teaching law at the University of Houston, has helped in numerous lawsuits against Texas and other states.

He said the University of Florida’s decision to bar the professors from participating in the lawsuit was a demonstration of “fecklessness,” and in light of the fact that the professors will likely go to court to win the right to participate, “wasteful.”

Olivas said the decision reflects “a unique hypocrisy” of “cancel culture”: Republicans like to talk about how cancel culture is dangerous to academe, but they are quite willing to cancel out those with whom they disagree.

He said the decision denies the courts in Florida the expertise of faculty members and denies the faculty members their rights to free expression.

“You can’t even express a viewpoint,” he said.

The Associated Press reported that the professors are indeed threatening legal action.

“The university cannot silence the professors on matters of great public importance. These professors are citizens entitled to participate in the marketplace of ideas,” their lawyers, Paul Donnelly and Conor Flynn, said in a letter to the university. “These unlawful restrictions are shameful, and could very well deter top scholars from joining UF’s ranks.”

The United Faculty of Florida, which represents professors at the University of Florida, sent a letter to the university on Friday.

It said, “All citizens of the United States, including higher education faculty, have the fundamental right to address grievances against their government, especially when that government is acting in ways that undermine the rights, privileges, and freedoms of those citizens. The United Faculty of Florida insists that these faculty have the right — even the duty — to participate in litigation in their field of expertise regardless of their means or location of employment. The idea that the University of Florida would attempt to limit this right and duty for reasons that are antithetical to the fundamental principles of American democracy is political coercion of the grossest magnitude.”

The letter continued, “UF’s world class faculty have historically served as expert witnesses for both Democrats and Republicans, both for and against the executive branch. Changing that policy now by weaponizing outside activity reporting forms to support a political agenda does nothing to support the public good, and it serves only to diminish the university’s standing among the local community and nationally.”

Smith, one of the professors, is chair of political science at the university. He posted this image on Twitter, on the day he was notified the university would block his participation in the suit.

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