University of Florida Bars Professors From Testifying Against DeSantis-Backed Voting Law

The University of Florida has banned three professors from offering their expert testimony in a voting rights lawsuit, claiming that it's in the school's best interest to avoid a conflict with Governor Ron DeSantis' administration.

The lawsuit challenges a new law that restricts voting rights.

The school said on Saturday that it would be "adverse to the university's interests as a state of Florida institution" if professors Dan Smith, Michael McDonald, and Sharon Austin were allowed to provide their expertise for the lawsuit's plaintiffs, the Associated Press reported.

Smith, who is the head of the school political science department, had previously testified in voting rights cases in Florida.

"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 school said in a statement, per the AP.

DeSantis signed a voting bill into law in May that limits access to mail-in voting by introducing stricter voter ID requirements. The law also places restrictions on who can pick up and return a voter's ballot at drop boxes and bars the use of private funding to pay for elections.

"Me signing this bill says: 'Florida, your vote counts, your vote is going to be cast with integrity and transparency and this is a great place for democracy,'" the governor said in May during an appearance on Fox & Friends.

An email sent from the university's assistant vice president to McDonald said: "UF will deny its employees' requests to engage in outside activities when it determines the activities are adverse to its interests. As UF is a state actor, litigation against the state is adverse to UF's interests."

Another university official echoed the same concern, according to the AP, saying that "outside activities that may pose a conflict of interest to the executive branch of the State of Florida create a conflict for the University of Florida."

McDonald tweeted on Saturday his concerns about being banned from testifying in the lawsuit against the state.

Myself (@electproject) Dan Smith (@electionsmith) and ⁩Sharon Austin (⁦@SharonA82707528) are the faculty being denied our constitutional right to free speech by the university

— Michael McDonald (@ElectProject) October 30, 2021

"Myself, Dan Smith, and Sharon Austin are the faculty being denied our constitutional right to free speech by the university," he said.

The university's decision to exclude the professors from testimony has been criticized. According to Politico, Daniel Tilley, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, told university officials in a letter that the move is "a breathtaking admission that not only contravenes the most basic principles of academic freedom but also violates Dr. Smith's First Amendment freedom to speak."

Meanwhile, the United Faculty of Florida, a union representing the state's faculty staff, said that the school's claim that the professors' testimony would pose conflict is "outrageous."

"UF does not exist to protect DeSantis or any party," it said on Twitter on Friday.

The lawsuit challenging DeSantis law was filed in May by a coalition of civic groups that includes the League of Women Voters of Florida, the Black Voters Matter Fund, and the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans.

Florida university bars professors from testifying
The University of Florida banned three of its professors from testifying in a lawsuit against a law, backed by Governor Ron DeSantis, that restricts voting rights. Above, DeSantis arrives for a ceremony to present bonus checks to first responders held at the Grand Beach Hotel Surfside on August 10, 2021 in Surfside, Florida Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The complaint alleged that the law "caters to a dangerous lie about the 2020 election that threatens our most basic democratic values, and, in the end, makes it harder to vote without adequate justification for doing so."

Florida Secretary of State Laurel M. Lee, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, and 67 state supervisors of elections were named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Newsweek contacted the University of Florida for comments but didn't hear back in time for publishing.