UF Professors Under Fire

Published: Nov. 1, 2021 at 5:53 PM CDT
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Capitol News Service) - After initially telling three professors they could not testify against the state in an elections lawsuit the University of Florida has now relented.

But the University has now set conditions for the professors to testify in court.

Professors Daniel Smith, Michael McDonald, and Sharon Austin were all notified in mid-October that the University of Florida would not allow them to testify in a lawsuit challenging election law changes.

Documents filed in Federal court show UF believed the testimony created a conflict between the state and UF.

Senate Bill 90 prohibits unattended ballot drop boxes and prohibits the possession of more than two mail ballots by a single person.

In its suit, Rising Florida argues the changes impose substantial restrictions on voters.

The Governor and a handful of lawmakers who negotiated the deals on SB 90 are all fighting subpoenas requiring them to testify on why the legislation was needed.

Senator Dennis Baxley sponsored SB90, but on Monday he wouldn’t talk about trying to block efforts to have him testify in the case.

“It’s time for me to hush and let them do their business,” said Baxley.

The professors have testified against the state before.

Smith worked with voting rights advocate Desmond Meade to win the right of felons to once again vote.

“In our case, he was very helpful because he gave us a better idea of the number of people that were impacted by fines and fees, and so it really helped to tell our approach as to how we were going to attack that problem,” said Meade.

Democrats called the affair an example of the state’s top-down management style.

“It’s the universities, the way one individual thinks they should be run, or they won’t be given their allowance,” said State Representative Evan Jenne.

The University has now clarified its position.

The professors can testify, but only on their own time and without compensation.

When asked about the university’s decision Governor DeSantis’ Press Secretary Christina Pushaw told us the Governor ‘has always championed free speech, open inquiry, and viewpoint diversity on college and university campuses.

“The Constitution guarantees the right to free speech, but not the right to receive compensation for speech,” said Pushaw.

Full statement from UF:

“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. 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.”

It is worth noting, the university views the professors’ request as a request to be paid to testify against the state, and the university, as a public institution, is part of the state -- therefore, that would be adverse to the university’s interests. However, to be clear, if the professors wish to do so pro bono on their own time without using university resources, they would be free to do so.”

Full State from the Governor’s Office:

“Governor DeSantis has always championed free speech, open inquiry, and viewpoint diversity on college and university campuses. Earlier this year, he signed House Bill 233, which requires state colleges and universities to conduct annual assessments of the viewpoint diversity and intellectual freedom to ensure that Florida’s postsecondary students will encounter diverse ideas and opinions, including those that they may disagree with or find uncomfortable.”

“UF’s statement reiterated the university’s long-standing commitment to academic freedom. UF denied the requests of full-time university employees to undertake outside paid work that the university considers adverse to its own interests. Those professors, like all UF professors, are free to express their own opinions about this and other issues. In fact, these faculty have openly stated their disagreement with their institution’s policy: For example, Professor McDonald tweeted “I won’t back down” and asserted his opinion that faculty are being denied their right to free speech. Professor McDonald and all faculty members are entitled to their own opinions.“ ”The Constitution guarantees the right to free speech, but not the right to receive compensation for speech.“ ”The fact remains that all public universities, including UF, have policies around situations where conflicts of interest may arise, including paid testimony in a lawsuit. The UF policy that requires professors to seek approval for paid outside work to prevent conflicts of interest was established well before SB 90 and the lawsuit; therefore, it could not have been a reaction to this case.“ ”The governor’s office did not create UF’s policy on conflicts of interest, nor did the governor tell the university - directly or indirectly - how to enforce their own policy.”

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