University of Florida Under Review After Refusing to Let 3 Professors Testify in Court

The University of Florida is under review after refusing to let three professors contribute to a voting rights lawsuit in a move that could violate academic freedom.

Dan Smith, Michael McDonald, and Sharon Austin were barred from participating as paid experts in a lawsuit claiming that Florida's elections law harms voting rights, the Associated Press reported.

The school previously said that the testimony would go against the school's interest and relationship with Gov. Ron DeSantis. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' Commission on Colleges will be investigating these comments, according to its president, Belle S. Wheelan.

The University of Florida will also be reviewing these comments with a separate task force. In a letter to the campus community, President Kent Fuchs and Provost Joe Glover said that the task force will "review the university's conflict of interest policy and examine it for consistency and fidelity."

The letter also cited that Smith, McDonald, and Austin would be able to testify in the lawsuit "without using university resources."

DeSantis denies barring the professors from testifying in a statement made by press secretary Christina Pushaw. "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 office said.

The commission's report is expected to be released no later than June 2022. Further details regarding UF's task force are unknown.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Ron DeSantis Lawsuit
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, flanked by Attorney General Ashley Moody and supporters, addresses the media and supporters Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021 in Lakeland, Florida. The governor is involved in a voting rights lawsuit that the University of Florida has barred professors from testifying in. Calvin Knight/The Ledger via AP

In response to the university leaders' letter, attorneys for the professors said Tuesday that they'll fight for the scholars' right "to speak on their own personal time, as citizens and as scholars."

"By picking and choosing which of its faculty can testify in court as expert witnesses over voting rights, the University of Florida is violating these professors' constitutional rights in the place where their truthful views are needed most: a United States Courthouse," said the statement from attorneys David O'Neil and Paul Donnelly. "They have sworn an oath to work on behalf of the people of Florida, not political interests."

The 10 Democratic members of Florida's congressional delegation on Tuesday condemned the decision in a letter to Fuchs.

"We urge you to reconsider this 'prior restraint' on speech that violates the First Amendment as well as the deeply rooted principles of academic freedom that we know you and the University of Florida community hold so dear," said the letter issued by the office of U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

As part of the accrediting body's investigation into whether the university violated the "academic freedom" and "undue political influence" standards, officials will be asked to provide more details about the decision to deny the professors' request, the Miami Herald reported.

Wheelan said findings are expected no later than June 2022, and the university could face no action, a warning, be further monitored, placed on probation or lose its accreditation.

UF's president answers to its Board of Trustees, which has six members appointed by the governor and five appointed by the state university system's Board of Governors. The Board of Governors, in turn, has 17 members, 14 of whom are appointed by the Florida governor and confirmed by the state Senate. These offices have been in Republican hands for many years.