In “frightening” decision, UF professors were banned from testifying against Florida
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In a decision that could have far-reaching implications for free speech for professors at Florida universities and colleges, the University of Florida has refused to allow three political science professors to continue to serve as expert witnesses in a court case. case that challenges a new state law that restricts access to the vote.
Political science professors Daniel Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin, two of whom have all been expert witnesses in anti-state cases, were emailed earlier this month that their requests for expertise would now be rejected. They were seeking permission to serve as experts in the case challenging Senate Bill 90, passed by the GOP-controlled Florida legislature following the 2020 election.
“Outside activities which may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the State of Florida create a conflict for the University of Florida,” wrote David Richardson, dean of the UF College of Arts and Sciences. in response to Smith’s request.
Smith is the chairman of UF’s political science department; McDonald’s is a national election expert and Austin studies the political behavior of African Americans.
Gary Wimsett, UF’s assistant vice president for conflict of interest, provided a similar response to McDonald and Austin.
“UF will refuse requests from its employees to engage in outside activities when it determines that the activities are contrary to its interests. As UF is a state actor, litigation against the state is against UF’s interests, ”Wimsett’s rejection to McDonald’s and Austin reads.
Paul Donnelly, the professors’ lawyer, called the UF’s decision “retaliation” which “strikes at the very heart of academic freedom” and infringes on their rights to free speech.
“This is a deep, frightening and frightening policy change,” he said. “What if another party controlled and could engage in this kind of censorship?” “
Donnelly said lawyers for plaintiffs in the voting rights case brought by Florida Rising, ACLU and other voting rights groups raised concerns in the document filed in U.S. District Court on Friday. north Florida in the case.
He said he hopes the federal judge will address their concerns and UF to change their position, but if they don’t, they will consider filing a lawsuit in federal court, arguing that academic freedom and rights of the First Amendment were violated, and seek a preliminary injunction.
In a statement released to the Miami Herald by UF vice president for communications Steve Orlando, the school denied that it violated professors’ free speech rights.
“The University of Florida has a long history of supporting free speech and academic freedom in our faculty, and we will continue to do so.
“It is important to note that the university has not denied the First Amendment rights or the academic freedom of Professors Dan Smith, Michael McDonald and Sharon Austin. On the contrary, the university has refused requests from these full-time employees to undertake paid work outside the home that is contrary to the interests of the university as an institution of the State of Florida.
The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In an Oct. 13 letter to Wimsett, ACLU attorney Daniel Tilley told the university that “there is no doubt that Dr Smith would speak in his capacity as a private citizen, and not as a as a university employee ”. He also argued that Smith should be allowed to testify because the issue is of great public concern.
“The principles of academic freedom greatly reduce the scope of the legitimate prerogative of government to the discourse of police professors on matters of public interest,” he wrote.
The United Faculty of Florida, which represents 25,000 higher education professionals, condemned the move in a statement after an article on the matter was first published Friday night by The New York Times.
“We stand in solidarity with our members and their duty to share their expertise for the public good,” the statement said. “We support all Floridians and their right to criticize their government. If UF does not reverse its decision, it will set a terrifying precedent for any Floridian who works in local or state government. “
Austin, a full professor, said she is among only 2% of black women full professors in the nation and will fight for the right to speak out. She urged UF “do not give in to pressure from outside forces at the state level.
“For me, this is about my role as an African American female mentor,” Austin said in a statement included in the UFF press release. “A black woman from the South who does not fight for the right to vote is a betrayal of her community. I refuse to teach my students that it is important to fight for the right to vote and civil rights and not to fight for these rights myself.
Smith also vowed to fight.
“It’s truly breathtaking, and a complete reversal of the green light that the UF administration has always given me to promote the voting rights of all Floridians,” he said in a statement. communicated. “We will not back down from this attack on our First Amendment rights to speak at our own pace, on matters of great public importance.”
Professors have offered expert testimony in numerous lawsuits, and Smith and McDonald have also provided expertise in previous cases against the state of Florida.
A week before McDonald’s was denied his application to become an expert, Smith, who is chair of the University of Florida’s political science department, and McDonald, a clipping expert who is also a professor in the department, wrote a op- ed published in the Tampa Bay Times accusing Republican leaders of using outside contracts to intentionally protect public redistribution data and mapping details.
Lawmakers vigorously denied the claims and called for the column to be retracted.
Donnelly now says the timing of what he sees as retaliation matters.
“When someone engages in an activity protected by the First Amendment, as the professors did with the opinion piece or with their testimony, if unconstitutional action is taken by the government nearby, it is is evidence of a violation of constitutional rights. ” he said.
Smith was initially informed that he could no longer participate as an expert witness in July, according to correspondence included in documents filed with federal court. But the denial for McDonald’s and Austin came after the editorial.
Senate Bill 90 made changes to state election laws, including restricting the use of ballot boxes and banning people from possessing more than two postal ballots, which was already illegal in the United States. Miami-Dade County.
The plaintiffs in this case argue that the law is unconstitutional and designed to suppress the vote of minorities. Last week, the state asked a federal judge to block subpoenas that would require seven Republican lawmakers and a representative from the DeSantis office to testify about their role in creating the law. The governor’s office claimed that executive privilege prevented his office from testifying.
Smith was the most prolific of the three professors in his work with experts challenging the government of the Republican-controlled state.
He was a key figure in the litigation surrounding Amendment 4, the constitutional amendment adopted by Floridians in 2018 allowing almost anyone convicted of felony the right to vote, provided they have met “all the conditions.” of their sentence.
Initially hailed as one of the country’s biggest civil rights expansions in decades, it was slashed when the state legislature, at the insistence of DeSantis, passed a law clearly defining “all the terms” of punishment by requiring criminals to pay all court debts before they can vote.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups filed a lawsuit claiming the bill was unconstitutional. The ACLU hired Smith to study the effects of the bill and he put together the most comprehensive known database of Florida criminals and concluded that almost 80% of them could not vote because they owed court costs, fines or restitution to the victims. Most owed more than $ 1,000, an amount beyond the reach of those already struggling to find work after being convicted of a felony.
“The game is stacked against them,” Smith said.
A federal judge in Tallahassee opposed the state, but the decision was overturned by an Atlanta appeals court.
Ahead of the 2020 election, Smith was also an expert on mail-in ballots and in a lawsuit that forced the state to provide Spanish ballots to Hispanic voters. He provided a written report to the League of Women Voters to expand early voting in Florida and also testified against UF in a case that resulted in the cancellation of the ban on early polls on Florida college campuses. .
From 2012 to 2014, Smith provided analysis and testimony in connection with the redistribution lawsuit brought by the League of Women Voters and other plaintiffs.
Donnelly said he has been working with University of Florida professors as expert witnesses for three decades and that it is an activity that has always been encouraged by the university and has been a means for professors to ” increase their wages.
“At the University of Florida, it brings more fame and respect to the university and they are professors working for public institutions, so the salary is generally not comparable to that of private institutions,” he said. -he declares. “So he was consistently encouraged.”
Mary Ellen Klas can be contacted at email@example.com and @MaryEllenKlas
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